Brinkley Farms: Lessons from a North Carolina Family About Stewardship

In my first official Farm to Fork vendor tour as a fellow, I visited Brinkley Farms in Creedmoor, NC,  with our manager of strategic initiatives, Nicole Tocco Cardwell.


Brinkley Farms has been handed down through three generations, beginning with Abram and Mildred Brinkley in 1941. Michael Brinkley told us how, as America left behind smoking as a social norm, he and his family “saw the writing on the wall” for their family farm, and began to transition from growing tobacco to vegetable crops, shell beans, corn, and wheat. (They also raise hogs and cattle.) Fortuitously, a movement to forge a stronger connection to our food would soon enough take hold. The Brinkley’s shift came shortly before Bon Appétit’s 1999 launch of our Farm to Fork program. Out of these decisions, both arising before the local-food movement truly took off, Bon Appétit and the Brinkleys would eventually form a strong relationship that allows both to thrive in North Carolina today.

At the start, the Brinkleys sold their produce to the famous Magnolia restaurant in downtown Durham, NC, and had a strong CSA and presence at the Durham farmers market. Over 10 years ago, Michael met a Bon Appétit chef at this farmers’ market. The team at SAS in Cary, NC, has been buying Michael’s produce ever since.

DSC_6075Michael told us many stories about typical farm life, such as how he first learned to manage money as a kid by selling sweet corn to the neighbors. As we walked along rows of shell beans, the edges trimmed with morning glories, and the shrubs bordering the fields dotted with Muscadine grapes, he laughed about how he had to race his kids to get to them. One of the things that resonated the most with me, as both a person who cares about our food system and a kid from an agricultural community, was how every decision he made on the farm had to be considered for how it affected his family. The value of the owner-operated farm is often taken for granted in the modern industrial agricultural system, but it was beautifully illustrated by Michael as he told us how careful he was with his crops, thinking of his children sorting the produce into boxes for their CSA and racing for the grapes.

I was so happy to dive into my work as a Fellow by visiting Brinkley Farms, and so very reminded of my own upbringing in western New York. If each of us, farmers and consumers alike, thought of land and our purchases as we think of our family, with care and thought to the future, we will have a fighting chance at changing the food system.