A tale of two Steves

By Mary Catherine Gaston

Alums "Weed" and "Bug" Brown advance agriculture in the Southeast

While it could be argued that a good story should be told from its beginning, sometimes it makes more sense to start in the middle. That’s where this story of two Steve Browns—both Auburn ag grads, former UGA faculty members and highly respected agricultural scientists—begins.

In the late 1970s, these two Steves’ stories converged on The Plains when both became students in Auburn’s College of Agriculture. Though the two were in different majors—Steve L., or “Bug” Brown, in botany, which was in the College of Ag then, and Steve M., or “Weed” Brown, in agronomy—there was plenty of confusion, as when the two ended up on the roll of one of professor Joe Hood’s classes together.

When “Bug” Brown finished his B.S. in 1977 and headed to the University of Arkansas to work as a research associate, the mix-ups subsided briefly. “Weed” Brown also enjoyed a few years as the only Steve Brown in town when he put his 1978 B.S. to work as an assistant county agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. But the break wouldn’t last long, as both Browns would find themselves back on Ag Hill in the early ’80s.

For “Bug” Brown, this return to The Plains was bittersweet.

“I was working under a faculty member at Arkansas who came in one day and told me that he wasn’t going to make tenure,” he says. “That meant my job there would be ending, too. I was devastated.”

Because Brown loved Fayetteville, his boss and his work, it seemed like his world was ending. It was a familiar feeling for the Huntsville native, whose collegiate career began at Florence State University (now the University of North Alabama) as a scholarship athlete. After his freshman year, the university discontinued the track program he was part of, and his scholarship ended. Distraught and at a loss for what to do next, he followed the advice of his high school track coach, who then was an assistant coach of Auburn’s team, and walked on that team, eventually earning a scholarship.

The silver linings

“These were two cases where my world was crushed,” he says. “But they ended up being two of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Winding up on Auburn’s campus meant he was introduced to the nation’s land-grant university system, which would be a major player in his life story from that point on. More important, the unexpected turn of events introduced him to agriculture, which became a great passion for the young man who had grown up surrounded by cotton fields but with no connection to farming.

The second time "Bug" Brown landed on The Plains, it was to work—like his similarly named former classmate—for extension. A few years into his new profession, he took study leave to complete his Ph.D. in entomology at Clemson University. Then, it was on to the University of Georgia, where he took on the role as peanut entomologist for the state, based at the school’s Tifton campus.

Meanwhile, Dothan native “Weed” Brown, who had completed his master’s degree at Auburn and his Ph.D. at Texas A&M, had a few years under his belt as a weed scientist with UGA, working with peanuts and cotton—and also based on the university’s Tifton campus. In fact, ”Weed” Brown was living at 1216 Murray Ave. in the quiet, south Georgia town when he found out—through the same, good, old-fashioned confusion the Browns had grown accustomed to at Auburn—that his old classmate had moved in a few doors down.

“We got a card in our mail that said, ‘Congratulations on your new baby,’ but we hadn’t had a baby,” Brown says. The Mr. and Mrs. Steve Brown who lived at 1416 Murray Ave., however, had.

Names of distinction

Needless to say, if the two were going to be on the same campus, working on the same crop teams, some solution was needed to cut down on the mix-ups their names naturally initiated. UGA colleagues were happy to provide the remedy by giving the two Browns the monikers they go by to this day—“Bug” Brown for the entomologist and “Weed” Brown for the agronomist. With the matter of names settled, the two set off on what would become extraordinary careers.

John Beasley, head of Auburn’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, was a classmate of both Browns at Auburn before joining them on the UGA faculty and peanut team.

“Both Steve and Steve have had a huge impact on agriculture in the Southeast,” Beasley says.

In describing the contributions of the two Auburn grads to Southeastern agriculture, Beasley points to achievements by both men that literally changed the way the region’s farmers farm.

For example, “Bug” Brown was an instrumental part of the three-man team who developed the tomato spotted wilt virus risk index that helped save Georgia’s peanut industry in the early ’90s.

At the time of the tool’s development, the virus was destroying peanut crops and severely limiting yields across the state and region. The tool developed by Brown and two fellow Auburn Ag grads, Albert Culbreath and Jim Todd, allowed peanut producers to greatly reduce the disease’s impact and became the basis for the peanut disease risk index and has since been duplicated as a tool for managing other pest problems.

Changing times

“Weed” Brown’s contributions to Southeast agriculture came at an equally critical time. Tapped as Georgia’s cotton agronomist in 1995, Brown gained not only a new name—“Cotton”—but also the daunting task of seeing the state’s ag industry through some of the most significant changes it had ever experienced. From 300,000 acres of cotton planted his first year in the position, Georgia’s cotton acreage swelled to more than 1.5 million within just a few years. People who had never grown cotton before began planting the crop, making Brown’s expertise and leadership vital.

In addition to the enormous increase in cotton production, Brown’s first few years as Georgia’s top cotton expert coincided with the federal Boll Weevil Eradication Program and the launch of new pest-prevention technologies like Bollgard and Roundup Ready Cotton.

“Steve was instrumental in guiding UGA county extension agents and producers through the learning curve of economically sustainable cotton production,” Beasley says. “He guided Georgia cotton producers through an incredible, changing system of cotton production and led Georgia to become the No. 2 cotton-producing state in the U.S.”

In spite of their differentiated names and remarkable careers, two of the nation’s most highly regarded agricultural experts still suffered the unfortunate, though sometimes humorous, effects of possessing the same name. Throughout their years at UGA, checks from various funding sources and even paychecks would be directed to the “wrong” Steve Brown. After “Cotton” Brown left UGA in 2007 to become a cotton development specialist with Dow AgroSciences, his new company even shipped its latest hire’s laptop to his former co-worker’s on-campus office.

In his role with Dow, Brown now works with many of the same cotton producers he got to know well in his years with UGA, as well as with dealers and distributors throughout the Southeast. He provides technical support to Dow AgroScience’s sales staff, helping them to position the company’s products effectively. He also gets to do something he loved doing during his years at UGA—conducting small-scale, on-farm trials to help determine the best fit for the company’s varieties and crop protection products.

“It’s been interesting to see [Dow’s] market grow,” he says, adding that, despite tough competition, the company’s share of the market is nearly 30 times what it was a decade ago. “The products that farmers have available to them today are things we couldn’t have imagined 10 to 15 years ago.”

After 16 years as Georgia’s peanut entomologist, “Bug” Brown transitioned into administration within the University of Georgia System, replacing fellow Auburn Ag grad David Bridges as head administrator of UGA’s Tifton campus when Bridges left for the top spot at Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College in 2006. This Brown topped off his career with six years in extension administration, retiring in 2014.

But like the other Steve Brown, this one is filling his retirement with meaningful work, serving as executive director of the Peanut Foundation, the research funding arm of the American Peanut Council, and consulting on stored-products insect control, a topic in which he is known as a foremost expert.

The photo above the story shows Steve M. "Weed/Cotton" Brown at left and Steve L. "Bug" Brown on the right.

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