Mike & Theresa Lowe, Owners of Mike's Farm
It's the middle of the day, a gentle breeze is blowing, and Mike’s Farm near Richlands is just quiet enough to hear a nanny goat calling from inside her fence. Nearby, Mike Lowe walks across the grassy lawn, busy as usual, on his way to fix whatever needs fixing on the family farm. Inside the bakery, buttery yellow cake layers have come out of the oven and are about to be stacked, ten layers high, and slathered with rich chocolate icing. A large bowl of sliced apples, sprinkled with enough cinnamon to fill the kitchen with the scent, will soon become the filling for who knows how many apple pies. Soon, the finished sweets will be on display inside the Country Store and Bakery, where visitors will order up a slice, and wash it down with apple cider or perhaps a glass-bottle Coca-Cola.
All’s quiet now, but soon it will be supper time at Mike’s Farm, and visitors hungry for platters of fried chicken and the rest of the family-style meal will have the restaurant hopping with activity. Flaky biscuits stuffed with salt-cured ham, macaroni and cheese, pork roast, and sweet tea, served over ice in mason jars, will fill the tables, giving diners a sense of what it used to taste like to eat at Grandma’s house. Supper time is busy, and the long row of rocking chairs spread across the front porch will get a good workout as people wait their turn to enter the dining room.
“It’s regular food like we grew up with,” Lowe says. “Corn and beans, biscuits and taters, and the fried chicken; everybody loves fried chicken, and it’s nothing complicated. It’s salt and pepper and flour, and most of the time it turns out real good. Anybody around here, if you turn out chicken and pork, there’s nothing no better.”
In the restaurant’s early days, Theresa’s Aunt Liz stood for hours over a cast-iron skillet, with hot oil spitting onto the stove as pan after pan of chicken fried to crispy perfection. Keeping platters filled with hot food was a family affair, and Theresa’s Aunt Gertrude earned a hearty reputation as chief biscuit maker. Both ladies ran the kitchen until they were in their eighties, and were instrumental in its success.
Mike and his wife, Theresa, began selling Christmas trees on their farm in the Back Swamp community in the mid-1980s. The farm had been in their family since 1945, and, like most eastern North Carolina farms, was used to grow and house tobacco. Remnants of that era remain, and students on field trips learn all about how tobacco was cropped, tied on sticks and hung in tobacco barns to dry and cure until ready to go to market.
Today, Mike’s Farm has grown into a regional tourist and wedding destination, with seasonal hayrides, a pumpkin patch in the fall, strawberries in the spring, the country store gift shop, and restaurant, and dinner shows. They recently built and opened an NC Products Barn, and shelves are filled with everything from specialty coffee from Wilmington to unique wines from all over the Tarheel state.
“Everything in there is either manufactured or handmade from North Carolina,” Theresa Lowe says. “We try to find things that are unique. There’s beer soap in there, pens made out of a corn cob, coasters and plaques from North Carolina tobacco leaves, food items as well as general merchandise, just a variety of products.”
Christmas on Mike’s Farm is particularly fun, with old-fashioned greenery and twinkling lights nearly everywhere. The “Festival of Lights” hayride and light show is so popular that families make plans to attend weeks in advance.
“A lot of people tell us it’s a tradition now to come out and do the hayride and meal,” Lowe says. “We have a lot of people come, too, who have families scattered out, and this is a central place for them. They’ll come here and have their meal together. Some people come from a long ways away and some come because they came as kids and it’s something they want to pass on to their children. That’s a special part for us.”