Lights, Camera, Agriculture!
Warren Brothers calls himself a farmer; I call him a philosopher. When he talks about farming, he could be drawing parallels to life: “The soil is pretty forgiving around here. You’ve got so many different crops at different stages, so if one gets messed up, the others are usually OK.”
That yin-and-yang outlook is essential in farming, a line of work that’s entirely dependent on the weather. Some years are leaner than others, but Warren accepts the ebb and flow of farm life. “You can’t beat it,” he says. “You got land to hunt on, a pond to fish in, a place for your grandchildren to run wild and have fun. You’re eating good food, so even if you’re not making money, you know you can feed yourself. A country boy can always survive on a farm.”
Fans of A Chef’s Life – seen on public television stations across the country – know Warren from his frequent appearances on the show, often delivering fresh produce to Vivian Howard’s Chef & The Farmer restaurant or hosting Vivian at Brothers Farm as she selects seasonal offerings for her menu. Regular viewers of the show will know that Warren likes to walk the fields barefoot. I asked him whether he relies on the calendar or the thermometer to know when it’s time to put shoes on. Warren laughed and said, “I let the ground tell me. It’s kind of a gut thing.”
Balancing Tradition and Innovation
As a sponsor of A Chef’s Life, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSBNC) was eager to visit Brothers Farm in La Grange, several miles from Kinston, NC in the eastern part of the state. The 300 acres of land has been in Warren’s family for at least five generations – more than 200 years. “I started working this land at 10 years old,” Warren said, sounding a little surprised himself. “As I got older, I started driving tractors. It was in my blood, I guess.”
Indeed it was. Warren’s great-great-grandfather came to the La Grange area in the early 1800s, “but there’s still some argument in our family about exactly when,” he said. “My granddaddy was building the house in 1929 when the Depression started. Money got tight and they couldn’t finish the upper floor, so they lived in the downstairs part for years. A lot of that went on in the ‘20s and early ‘30s. A lot of people lost their farms.”
In North Carolina’s glory days of tobacco, Brothers Farm was a reliable supplier. Today, the fields produce a variety of vegetables that are crucial to the area’s farm-to-fork restaurants. Working directly with restaurant owners, Warren is able to fulfill their requests for unique produce. “Vivian is always coming up with different things I should grow,” Warren said. “’If you grow this and this, I’ll buy ‘em all for the restaurant.’ And she’s usually right on with whatever the next great thing is going to be.”
Brothers Farm has become an important player in helping Eastern North Carolinians eat healthier, a goal shared by BCBSNC. The farm-to-fork movement – with food being produced and consumed locally – aims to use sustainable farming methods to provide more nutritious foods. The trend is also a boost for local economies, supporting smaller farms in the competition against far-away corporate operations.
Although he appreciates the traditions and history of farming, Warren is quick to adapt to changes in the industry and respond to what consumers want. Warren’s easygoing manner disguises the fact that he’s equal parts hands-on farmer and innovative entrepreneur. In addition to nearly 50 varieties of vegetables, Brothers Farm tries to fulfill as many other market demands as possible. “We raise a lot of cut flowers,” he said. “We’ll plant a few thousand tulip bulbs and supply restaurants and flower shops with those. We’re hustling everywhere we can, I’m telling you.”
Sometimes new ideas catch fire, sometimes they don’t. “We grew three or four kinds of medicinal herbs,” Warren reflected. “We made a little money on the herbs, but that never clicked like we hoped it would. But medicinal herb companies still occasionally call me to grow herbs for them.”
All in the Family in Kinston, NC
While he’s determined to be a successful farmer, Warren isn’t interested in expanding his business to the point where he loses the family feel of the operation: “I like the idea of being a small farm, but financially, it may not be the right thing. But with the agritourism part built into it, you can make it work.”
Agritourism is a more recent opportunity for Warren to keep the farm thriving. Less than a mile down the road from Brothers Farm, Warren’s larger house welcomes guests in search of peace and a taste of farm life. “A Chef’s Life has helped with the agritourism part of what we’re doing,” Warren said. “A group of thirteen women from Durham came down recently and rented our whole house for a weekend. A lot of people want to get out, take their dog for a walk, enjoy the quiet. We want it to just be a place to come and relax. This area is getting to be a pretty popular destination.”
Making frequent appearances on a nationally televised show has certainly raised the profile of Eastern North Carolina in general and of Brothers Farm in particular. But Warren hasn’t let the notoriety go to his head. “Vivian comes out here with her makeup on looking gorgeous, but I think the contrast with me really works,” he said with the chuckle that accompanies most of the things he says.
As for the future of the farm, Warren hopes a new generation of Brothers will want to carry on the family business. “You never know what will happen after I’m gone,” he reflected. “I feel pretty protective of this plot of land. You don’t really see much industry creeping in around here, so I’m hopeful this land will still be farm land in another 200 years. Who knows?”
As I prepared to leave the idyll of Brothers Farm for the drive back home to Durham, I asked Warren what he likes best about being a farmer. With a smile and a glimmer in his eye, Warren turned philosopher once again: “Farming never stops. Even in the dead of winter, we’re getting ready for spring. When I was younger, I used to be impatient waiting for crops to ripen. But I got used to the cycles and now I embrace them.”