By Sherrie Norris
Dr. Blake Brown of Boone was one of two industry leaders honored at the 16th Annual Breakfast with the Commissioner event on Friday, March 5, in Raleigh.
Due to the pandemic, the event was held virtually from the Tobacco Farm Life Museum, the board of directors of which selects the annual award recipients.
North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, Steve Troxler, and Drew Covert, CEO of Southern Bank and Trust Bank headquartered in Mt. Olive, presided over the event. Welcoming remarks were made by Susan Weaver Ford, chair of the Museum’s Board of Directors and owner/operator of Weaver Farms in Kinly.
Ford said it was an honor, along with Troxler, the museum and event sponsors, to acknowledge Brown as the recipient of the Excellence in Agriculture award, sponsored annually by Southern Bank and Trust.
Harrison Jenkins with Westward Farms in Statesville was awarded the 2021 Young Farmer of the Year.
Ford described Brown’s award as one that recognizes the significant impact of the recipient’s work in the field of agriculture in North Carolina and their dedication to helping the farming community.
Covert, who shared how agriculture is a big part of his company’s interest, introduced Brown as not only a national leader, but also as an enormous contributor on the state farming community level and at NC State University.
“He’s been very generous with his time,” Covert stated. “And he has been kind enough to take his time to meet and grow agriculture leadership all over North Carolina.’
Covert said that his company has been in the agriculture community and has been making agriculture loans since 1901.
“There has never been a shortage of challenges in our industry, and it’s never been more important to our nation, our state or for that matter, the world,” he added. “We continue to make terrific progress because of the leadership like that which is brought to us by Dr. Brown. We still hear comments in our company of the time he’s spent with our bankers in sharing his thoughts and perspective on the industry.”
In his presentation, Troxler acknowledged that he has had the privilege of knowing and working with Blake Brown for many years. “He is well known in agriculture circles for his economic insights and to North Carolina agriculture.”
Troxler noted that Brown, who is the Hugh C. Kiger Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University, has spent much of his career as a policy analyst working on farm policy, particularly tobacco policy.
Also, he said, Brown’s work has attracted the attention of the White House, and through a special assignment (late 2018-through early 2019), Brown served as a Senior Economist for the Council of Economic Advisers in the Executive Office of the President in Washington, DC.
A major focus for Brown during that nine-month project was working with policy makers on the $9.6 billion federal tobacco buyout.
Prior to the tobacco buyout (2004), Brown had worked diligently on the legislation for about seven years with congressional leaders and organizations.
“I appreciated his work on the tobacco buyout program,” Troxler said, describing it as a significant accomplishment, not only to tobacco farmers, but also to NC agriculture and NC ‘s rural communities as a whole.
“This enabled many tobacco growers to retire, while others transitioned in different crops or improved their tobacco operations,” Troxler added. “This move helped us usher in greater product diversification in the state of North Carolina.”
As a former tobacco farmer, Troxler said he was always interested in Brown’s “take on the tobacco front.”
From 2008-2014, Brown directed efforts at NCSU to help farmers add or expand value-added enterprises. From 2014 – 2018 he served as director of the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Commission Agricultural Leadership Development Program.
Brown is also credited for developing the business management program — The Executive Farm Management Program — to fit the unique needs of commercial farms in the southeast.
Brown also continues to provide economic analyses for tobacco and peanuts.
He has had numerous works published and has made many presentations, including testimony before the House and Senate committees on agriculture, as well as over $5 million in cumulative grant funding.
Referring to Brown’s diversified career in agriculture and agricultural economics, Troxler concluded, “You have done more for this state and farmers than I can ever get into. I just want to thank you for all the hard word you’ve put in on our behalf.”
When asked about this award, Brown shared with High Country Press that he values this honor highly, “Because it comes from the people I serve — the agriculture community, especially the farmers, of NC. The thing that really makes me tic is creating programs and providing information that creates value for NC farmers.”
It has been Brown’s pleasure, he said, to work with North Carolina farmers for over 30 years, “In every county of the state, from small farms to bigger farms.
Brown also thanked his family, including his wife, Ann who was present for the event, for their patience and support through the years.
How It All Began
No stranger to agriculture, Brown grew up on a small family farm outside of Boone, the son of the late R.V. and Eula Brown.
“Early in life we grew cabbage and potatoes,” he recalled, “But for most of my time growing up in Boone we grew cattle and burley tobacco.”
In addition to a love for farming, Brown said his parents instilled in him a strong faith in God, the value of family and the value of hard work.
“I always enjoyed working with cattle, and as a result of that — and my interest in science in high school — I chose to go to NC State University and get a degree in Animal Science.”
At the encouragement of his college advisor, Brown took some economics courses and became interested enough in economics to get a master’s degree in agricultural economics from NC State.
He and his wife, the former Ann Fulp, met as undergrads at NCSU and got married when they were both working on their master’s degrees.
Brown’s first job, after receiving his master’s, was as an extension agent in Person County.
“After 18 months, I moved to an area extension agent job working with farmers on financial management in the counties around Raleigh.”
What he enjoyed most about these jobs, Brown said, was working with the farmers. “Thirty-five years later, I still keep up with some of those farm families,” he stated.
At age 28, Brown decided to return to school for a PhD in Economics, choosing NC State University mainly because of a fellowship they offered him to help with the cost of going back to school.
“Three years later, I was offered a job at NCSU as a professor doing economic policy and farm management, work mostly relating to tobacco and peanuts.”
And at the same time, he admitted, he’s never taught in the classroom setting.
“My job is to provide economic analyses and information to farmers, extension agents, farm organizations, agribusiness and legislators,” he said.
Thirty years later, his main duties are the same, he explained. “Along the way, I’ve led a value-added program for farmers at our Kannapolis research campus and directed the College of Agriculture flagship leadership program for farmers and agricultural professionals.”
Brown elaborated on the aforementioned business management executive education program he started for large farms in the southeastern U.S. “This journey also included my assignment in Washington D.C. as a senior economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.”
He said that most of his time in D.C. was spent working on international trade policy and labor policy as they relate to agriculture,” he shared. “The work was intense, but always intensely interesting.”
For over two decades, Brown has held the endowed Hugh C. Kiger Professorship chair at NCSU, for which he was selected in 1997.
When asked what he enjoys most about his job, he did not hesitate to respond.
“I love working with people outside academia — especially farmers and the organizations that support farmers, like the NC Farm Bureau Federation. I like analyzing problems, especially when the information is used in the real world to improve the lives of farm families.”
Finding policy analysis especially fascinating, Brown said, he’s worked extensively with legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate on national agricultural policy and also with state legislators in the NC General Assembly.
“A fun part of my job has been traveling to all 100 NC counties, numerous parts of the U.S. and a number of countries around the world where I’ve interacted with farmers and the international agricultural community,” he shared.
For the past 15 years, Brown has divided his time between Raleigh and his home near Boone, on the farm where he grew up and where he has operated a small beef cattle farm.
“My son, Daniel, and daughter-in-law, Alexandra, also live on the farm with Ann and I, and help run the farm,” Brown said. “Daniel, Alex and Ann also operate BFR Beef, where they sell beef locally and online.”
Brown and his family are members of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone where he teaches an adult Sunday School Class. In his free time, he has enjoyed running, cycling and traveling.