Bite into a flavorful Florida grown strawberry in the winter months and the odds are about 50-50 it started out in western North Carolina.

Jeff Darnell, who grows commercial strawberries and a number of other fresh market crops in addition to strawberry plants, provided about 14 million plants to Florida last year.

Darnell, once the only strawberry plant propagator in western North Carolina, says there are now 5-6 strawberry growers in the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, and each produces as many or more strawberry transplants than he grows annually.

Darnell and his son grow strawberries along the banks of the Tuckasegee River in and around Bryson City, N.C. 

“Our primary business is growing strawberry plants, but we do grow strawberries for sale, and are beginning to see some opportunities to grow for major retail chains, like Harris Teeter, he says.

Strawberries at one time were a backyard hobby in North Carolina, or at best a patch here and there for roadside sales and farmers markets. Not anymore. North Carolina is now the fourth largest strawberry producing state in the country — and closing in fast on No. 3 Oregon.

One of the driving forces behind the industry’s rise in prominence in recent years is Jeff Darnell.

“My mother was a music teacher in western North Carolina, and the one thing she stressed over and over was to find a professional career in something other than music. I think I shocked everyone in my whole family by majoring in horticulture at the University of Tennessee, then coming home to the mountains to start farming,” Darnell says.

“I had no family involved in farming, and I didn’t have any experience working on a farm. Back then, I saw an opportunity to grow crops in what we call ‘rabbit patches’ or 10-20 acre fields up and down the Tuckasegee River Valley. Now, my whole family and lots of my friends are in the business,” he adds.

On the East Coast, Florida is by far the largest strawberry producing state, though on a national scene their production is dwarfed by California. Darnell sells strawberry plug plants, bare root plants, and root tips for sale into the Florida market.