“Not many folks do what we do any more — run the family farm, the little store and smoke our own hams,” says Tommy Darden, owner, with his wife Dee Dee, of Darden’s Country Store. Located outside Smithfield, the store is in the middle of farm land. The Dardens’ home is across the road, and the smokehouse is in front of the store.
Curing hams and making pork sausage since the early 1950s, the Darden family works individually with each ham —“until we get it right,” says Tommy. He takes a personal touch, the way his father did.
The 1,200 to 1,300 hams smoked each year hang from the rafters of the smokehouse, curing about 40 days. The hams are smoked with hickory and applewood in April and May. Then they are “aged to perfection,” Tommy says.
Corporate giant Smithfield Foods supplies the fresh hams. “Our relationship with them is good,” says Dee Dee. “Because we have a small operation, we can give people the chance to see how the ham is prepared,” she adds. The Dardens often host groups of students and others in the smokehouse.
Tommy’s parents built the 1,000-square-foot store. It opened in 1952. “Back then this was a rural farm community with dirt roads. Seed corn and fertilizer were sold,” Tommy says. Now the store stocks some “basic necessities” plus sandwiches, soft drinks, snacks, homemade sausage, ham, chicken pot pies, homemade pimento cheese, fresh corn, whole-hog North Carolina-style barbecue and local honey.
Tommy began curing ham in 1965 as a project during his senior year in high school. He spent some time in the Army and in 1982, he took over his father’s store.
The store and smokehouse have enjoyed national recognition. They were featured on Food Network’s “Tyler’s Ultimate” show. Other media attention includes Southern Living Magazine, the New York Times, Virginia Living, and Hampton Roads Magazine. Buyers have been attracted from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. However, the Dardens do not have a catalog. “We are not interested in shipping products. We want to keep it simple,” says Dee Dee.
The Dardens’ farm is about 250 acres. They grow cotton, soybeans, corn, pumpkins, wheat and hay for the animals, which include cattle, goats and sheep. School groups visit for a fun day on the farm. The children interact with the animals and, in October, walk through the corn maze and choose a pumpkin.
Dee Dee served as the state representative to the National Peanut Board 2001–2006. “I did a lot of traveling,” she says. She and Tommy have participated in agricultural organizations across the state. She enjoys small trips with friends.
“I’m not a vacationing person anymore,” Tommy says. “Although I do enjoy taking a spring break with family.” The Dardens have three children who help when needed, especially during the holidays. “They all have ‘real jobs,’” Dee Dee says. “Our seven grandchildren also help out.”
The Dardens are not considering retirement at this time. “I enjoy waiting on customers and talking,” Tommy says. “It’s never dull. Some day we hope the children and grandchildren will carry on what we have built.”
For now, the Dardens plan to continue to supply their delicious, quality ham products.
TO THE POINT:
Darden’s Country Store
Address: 16249 Bowling Green Rd., Smithfield VA 23430
Contacts: Tommy and Dee Dee Darden, owners