By Lisa Brown
Jason Brown was one of NFL’s best centers. His football career started at UNC-Chapel Hill, and after graduation he played for the Baltimore Ravens before becoming the starting center for the St. Louis Rams. By the time he was 25 he had surpassing his childhood goal of becoming a millionaire by age 30.
Now 31, instead of working hard on the football field, he’s working harder in a field of sweet potatoes, and has not looked back.
When the Rams let him go, many other teams wanted him. But Brown heard a higher calling. He came back to North Carolina, his home state, with his wife, Tay, to look for a farm.
They found “the most beautiful farm in North Carolina” in Louisburg. They named it “First Fruits Farm” even before they found it. Brown knew what he needed to do. The first “fruit” of every harvest would be donated to those in need.
Brown was raised in Henderson by parents who were hard-working. His father was a landscape architect who owned 40 acres of land. The family was never hungry, and Brown enjoyed the luxury of snacking from fruit trees his father had planted all over the farm. “I’d eat plums sometimes until I made myself sick,” he chuckles.
He didn’t know it then, but his family-farm upbringing was the beginning of a farming education.
Brown knew he wanted to farm, but what he really wanted to do was see to it that those most in need of the food he would grow would get it.
North Carolina ranks among the states with the highest food insecurity in the country, with 17.3 percent of residents living with the problem. Food insecurity is inconsistent access to adequate food because of a lack of money or other resources. Across the country, the food insecurity rate is 14.6 percent.
To get food to the people who needed it, Brown had to find a partner who understood distribution. He now works with the Society of St. Andrew in Durham, an agency that gleans produce and delivers it to soup kitchens, food banks and similar organizations. He also works with the Interfaith Food Shuttle, the Food Bank of North Carolina, churches and other not-for-profit groups.
“We’re just the farmers; we have to rely on them for the rest,” Brown says.
The process of gleaning is collecting crops that are left after a farmer’s fields have been commercially harvested or from fields that are not economically profitable to harvest.
Brown is extremely grateful to all the volunteers who show up to help glean his sweet potato fields. “It’s really hard work,” he says. Even just two to three hours can take a lot out of someone who is constantly bending over and picking up potatoes that have been dug from the ground. He says he appreciates not just their willingness to do it, but that when they finish they thank him for the opportunity.
Brown comes from a family of trailblazers so it’s not so surprising that he would not find it that difficult or unusual to leave a $37 million football contract behind. His grandfather, Jasper Brown, wanting the best education available for his four children, led the integration of schools in Yanceyville. That was in 1956, so it was not an easy road, much like the one Brown faces now.
“People thought of me as a hero when I was playing football,” Brown says. “But I wasn’t a hero. Just because I could snap a ball and run didn’t make me a hero.”
His humility is grounded in his upbringing and in his love for his brother and hero, Lunsford Bernard Brown II, who died in September 2003 while serving in Afghanistan. “He taught me that I had to help myself before I could help others,” Brown says.
“I’m able now to give back because God gave me a lot in a short time.”
To those who don’t quite grasp how he could walk away from millions, and to others who think he could have helped more by continuing to make a lot of money, he says, “This isn’t just about making a lot of money and giving it away. This is about being a leader.”
Brown doesn’t miss football, but does miss the camaraderie and the brotherhood he felt. The fields may be different, but the outcome was the same: coming together for the common good, whether for winning a game or harvesting produce.
He’s active in schools to help educate children about the importance of farming and help them understand where their food comes from. “We teach them how to cultivate and grow, which is motivating and empowering with everything they do,” Brown says.
His passion and his drive for service are what motivate him to continue and grow First Fruits Farm. His dedication to his faith and to his family sustains him and keeps him humble and certain of what he is doing.
“My purpose is much greater than myself, and I’ve been able to keep things in perspective and have a heart of humility,” he says.
Plans for bigger planting and harvests are on the horizon at First Fruits Farm. Brown’s hope is to produce 1 million pounds of crops to give away next year. Though he’s confident and committed, he still has fears and doubts like anyone. But the endless volunteers who come to help him bring him joy and comfort.
“I know I’m not doing this alone,” he says.
For more information about First Fruits Farm, visit www.wisdomforlife.org/first-fruits-farm.html. First Fruits Farms is on Facebook, and Brown is on Twitter at @WiseFarmerBrown.