Tobacco Road Turns a Corner
Chef Vivian Howard ushers tobacco farmers toward new crops—and a new horizon—in Kinston, NC
“If you grow it and it’s good, and you’ll deliver it, then I’ll buy all of it,” Vivian Howard once told the local farmers who now supply her James Beard Award–nominated restaurant, Chef & the Farmer. Cradling a cappuccino in her sleek office in Kinston, North Carolina, the acclaimed chef and cooking show star recalls how she helped those former tobacco farmers pivot to growing food. “I think that was liberating for some people who wanted to get into produce farming or making goat cheese, because I think they worried that there wouldn’t be a market for it.”
Howard—host of the PBS show A Chef’s Life and author of the best-selling cookbook Deep Run Roots—understands these challenges firsthand. She grew up on a tobacco farm here in Eastern North Carolina, where most of the tobacco in the U.S. is grown, and remembers when the golden leaf set the rhythms of the year. “Our whole life revolved around tobacco,” says Howard, whose family has since moved on to commercial hog farming. “We got out of school when people started working in the tobacco fields, and we went back to school when the tobacco harvest and barning was done.” Driven in large part by a decline in cigarette smoking and the rise of industrial farming by Big Tobacco, more than 95 percent of domestic growers left the tobacco business between 1997 and 2015—many in search of new, more profitable crops.
Howard is happy to oblige these new food suppliers, creating demand with her restaurant. In turn, what they’re growing—and how much—shapes her menu. “I’ll get huge amounts of goat cheese,” she laughs. “What do you do with that?” One solution: Country-ham-wrapped peaches with gingered goat cheese. A massive order of blueberries led to the creation of her blueberry barbecue chicken. Her weekly order from 15 area farms sounds like the staging for a Flemish still life: 150 birds, a whole cow, a pig plus eight pork loins, and 200 pounds of local produce. Everything comes from local farmers, except the odd ingredient that’s not grown in Eastern Carolina, like avocados, and almost nothing goes to waste.
One of Howard’s first suppliers was Warren Brothers, a fifth-generation tobacco farmer who makes regular deliveries to the restaurant from his farm in the nearby town of La Grange. “I just popped in the kitchen and said, ‘What can I do for you?’” he remembers of their first meeting, in 2006. “‘I’m a local farmer, and I’ve got some certified organic land, and I raise flowers, herbs, and vegetables.’ She said, ‘We’ll take all three,’ and we’ve been on ever since.”
Though Howard’s restaurant has been a boon to Brothers’s farm, one client alone isn’t enough to sustain him. “We do about five or six different restaurants,” he says. “You can’t make a living off one restaurant, even if it’s Chef & the Farmer, and they buy a lot of vegetables.” But Howard helped him see the way forward. “We—me and my daddy—supported two households on 40 acres of tobacco,” Brothers says, his cheerful visage reddened by decades in the field. “Well, now it would take 400 or 500 acres to do that. You’re at the mercy of R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Philip Morris. Whereas back in the day, you kind of felt like you were in charge, now the tobacco companies are in charge.”
The long rust-roofed curing barns still pock the landscape around Kinston, but today they’re as likely to shade bok choy and heirloom beet varietals as drying tobacco leaves. Brothers notes Howard keeps him busy with requests for exotic produce. “I had to go from raising four different things”—corn, soybeans, tobacco, and cotton—“and now we probably raise 35 or 40 different things,” he says. “Some I still haven’t mastered, like parsnips. There’s a lot of vegetables out there, and the odder they are, the better she loves them. So I’m still learning.”