Howard Brown

Howard Brown

If you have ever enjoyed eating rainbow trout in upscale restaurants in the eastern U.S., you might thank Howard Brown of Andrews, N.C. He and his business, C.R. Brown Enterprises, have played a large part in developing the trout farming industry in western North Carolina.

A farmer for 30 years, his farm produces up to 70,000 pounds of per acre. This fish is sold under the Carolina Mountain Trout brand name.

As a result of his success as a trout farmer, Brown has been selected as state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Brown is the first trout farmer to be named as a state winner of the Farmer of the Year award.

As measured by acreage, Brown’s farming system isn’t big, only about 30 acres, with 20 acres rented and 10 acres of owned land. But from this limited land, he produces an impressive amount of fish, about 1,000 tons of rainbow trout per year.

In addition, he is a feed distributor. He buys about 1,700 tons of trout feed per year, uses most of it on his own farms, and sells about a third of it to other trout farms.

He also manufactures organic fertilizer from the waste byproducts of the processed fish. It is made by a cold process using natural enzymes to transform the product from a solid to a liquid state.

He used to have to pay to get this byproduct hauled off. Now, it’s a major profit center. Last year, he shipped out more than 300,000 gallons of this liquid natural product throughout the eastern two thirds of the U.S. It is sold as Brown’s Fish Fertilizer. “This minimized our waste stream, and helped our bottom line,” Brown says.

“We market Carolina Mountain Trout via telephone and word of mouth,” says Brown. “Demand for our trout is almost always higher than our production. Most of our product is sold through distributors in Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and other eastern cities.”

The fertilizer products are marketed through a website. His son Brandon generates the sales by calling clients and meeting them at organic food conferences.

Trucking of feed and fish is another important farm-related enterprise. “We haul freshly processed fish to a number of cities two to three times per week,” says Brown. “We do some back-hauling for other companies, and that helps the profit margins.”

During the mid-1980’s, the need for a fish-processing plant became evident, so he helped organize investors and secure financing to build a processing plant and his company’s first trout farm. The plant can process about three million pounds of fish per year. Brown supplies two thirds of the trout the plant processes and the other third comes from other growers.

As demand for trout increased, Brown added more company farms. To address disease problems, he worked with researchers to develop new vaccines. “We are the only trout operation in the U.S. that vaccinates each fish, one at a time with a needle,” says Brown.

Drought can be a recurring problem, so he designed low- and high-pressure oxygen systems to keep the farms productive when water levels are low. Brown is currently testing a large tank he designed that uses limited amounts of water to grow trout during drought conditions.

Brown also designed trucks with integrated loaders that eliminate hand loading from the concrete raceways where the rainbow trout live and grow. These trucks speed up the process of moving fish from the farms to the processing plant.

Vacuum systems designed by Brown help to remove fish waste from the water in the raceways. These nutrients are either composted or dried and spread as fertilizer on fields.

His company is named after his father, C.R. Brown who raised chickens, cattle and crops. Howard’s first job after military service and college was to design and build a drying system for the chicken manure on his dad’s farm. Much of this product was fed to cattle, and that opened the door to establishing a feed mill on the farm. He shut down the feed mill in 2000 because it needed an expensive updating. The feed mill did lead to the production of some trout feed, and his overall trout operation emerged from that start.

Brown has been a deacon and bus driver for Marble Springs Baptist Church. He served as a youth baseball coach. He’s on the board of Snowbird Wilderness Outfitters, a Christian faith-based ministry that offers camping and other recreational activities. He’s also on the board of Industrial Opportunities, Inc., a nonprofit organization serving adults with disabilities.

He’s active in the N.C. Aquaculture Association. Brown works with state fisheries on projects related to vaccines and fish health. And he works with other agencies in addressing waste management. He designs equipment and methods for handling waste and complying with state and federal waste management guidelines.

Brown works with the National Center for Cool and Cold Water Aquaculture, North Carolina State University and the Extension Service on issues related to vaccine and disease management. He is working as a consultant with the Cherokee Nation on trout production and disease management. He is working with NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation) on raising trout without using antibiotics.

Howard is especially proud of the work his wife Debbie did for 25 years in handling trout sales, human resources, accounts payable and other duties. Debbie recently retired as office manager at the processing plant. Howard says, “She was at the heart of our success, and she’s a wonderful grandma to her five grandchildren.”

Howard and Debbie have two adult children, a daughter, Christy Helton, and a son, Brandon Brown. Brandon heads up the fertilizer business, coaches basketball and baseball at times and will eventually take on the overall management of the business. Christy is a stay-at-home mom for her four children. Christy’s husband Andy Helton drives trucks for the business and is learning to take over management of the farms. Howard’s brother Terry also works in the business as a truck driver and equipment operator.

Audrey Brown (no relation to Howard), director of field services with North Carolina Farm Bureau, coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Howard was nominated for the honor by another trout farmer, Duane Wilkey of Robbinsville, N.C.

Wilkey moved from Texas to North Carolina and gives Brown credit for building western North Carolina’s rainbow trout industry. “We’re isolated from other trout producers,” says Wilkey. “Howard developed the markets for our fish, the tools we use in growing fish and our processing facilities. The supply of fish needs to be reliable, and that word describes Howard. He’s reliable, and a one-of-a-kind individual who faced adversity while spending his own money to help this industry.”

As the North Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Brown will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply and a smoker-grill from Hays LTI.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 29th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from North Carolina include John Vollmer of Bunn, 1990; Kenneth Jones of Pink Hill, 1991; John Howard, Jr. of Deep Run, 1992; Carlyle Ferguson of Waynesville, 1993; Dick Tunnell of Swan Quarter, 1994; Allan Lee Baucom of Monroe, 1995; Scott Whitford of Grantsboro, 1996; Williams Covington, Sr. of Mebane, 1997; Phil McLain of Statesville, 1998; Earl Hendrix of Raeford, 1999; Reid Gray of Statesville, 2000; Rusty Cox of Monroe, 2001; Craven Register of Clinton, 2002; Frank Howey, Jr. of Monroe, 2003; Eddie Johnson of Elkin, 2004; Danny McConnell of Hendersonville, 2005; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2006; Bill Cameron of Raeford, 2007; V. Mac Baldwin of Yanceyville, 2008; Fred Pittillo of Hendersonville, 2009; Bo Stone of Rowland, 2010; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2011; Gary Blake of North Wilkesboro, 2012; Wilbur Earp of Winnabow, 2013; Frank Howey, Jr., of Monroe, 2014; Danny Kornegay of Princeton, 2015; Jerry Wyant of Vale, 2016; and Van Hemrick of Hamptonville, 2017.

North Carolina has had four overall winners, Eddie Johnson of Elkin in 2004, Bill Cameron of Raeford in 2007, Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord in 2011, and Danny Kornegay of Princeton in 2015.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Brown’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 6-10. The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009; and John McKissick, longtime University of Georgia ag economist from Athens, Ga.