Called to Cultivate

Jamie Thayer-Jones

Jason Brown grows food to donate, not to sell 

by Iza Wojciechowska

Every fall, Jason Brown welcomes thousands of volunteers to First Fruits Farm in Louisburg, North Carolina, who roam the farm’s 20 acres plucking sweet potatoes out of the freshly plowed earth. In this way, Brown collects hundreds of thousands of pounds of the crop – and every last one goes straight into the community. First Fruits is a donation-first farm, which means that the priority is not to sell produce, but to give the first crops of the season away. To date, Brown has donated more than 800,000 pounds of sweet potatoes to those in need across the state.

First Fruits Farm works with more than 100 community organizations, including the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, the Society of St. Andrew, and numerous local churches, soup kitchens, and food banks to provide hunger relief to thousands of people.

But Brown’s path to farming, and to good works, was unconventional. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a star football player, he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. In 2009, he signed with the St. Louis Rams, where he became the highest-paid center in the NFL. Three years later, Brown, a devout Christian, felt a calling; he decided to leave the football field to tackle issues of food insecurity in his home state instead. Without any real farming experience, he and his wife, Tay, a dentist, purchased First Fruits Farm in 2012 and got to work. “People often say to me, ‘If you had continued playing football, you could have made millions of dollars and purchased more food and given it away than what you’re doing now,’” Brown says. “But you can throw money at problems and they’re still going to persist. If we’re truly going to seek change, it’s got to come from our hearts, and that’s what’s made all the difference.”

Sweet potatoes are First Fruits Farm’s main crop because they’re nutrient-rich and easy to cultivate, harvest, and store. Brown also grows cucumbers, watermelon, and corn, and he hopes to soon start growing muscadine grapes, which have been shown to have high antioxidant content and significant health benefits, he says.

This spring, the farm will also reprise its Sow a Seed program, which saw success in 2015 and encourages people who may never have farmed before to grow their own vegetables. Brown packaged seeds for corn, watermelon, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes to mail to anyone who requested them and sent seeds to hundreds of people across the United States and abroad. “The idea is if Jason Brown, some kid from the country who plays a little bit of football, can grow some food, then you can do it too,” he says.

Brown grew up in Henderson, an hour north of Raleigh, where his father was a landscapist and taught Brown to mow lawns and plant trees. Though his father had himself grown up on a farm, he left home at 18 and never looked back at that lifestyle. Now, Brown is learning that farming is a completely different experience from landscaping, but one that’s been very rewarding. He says he wouldn’t trade it for anything – even his football career.

When he reflects on his decision to leave football – at a time when his three dream teams were ready to sign him, at that – he credits it largely to his faith and conversations he had with God, who called him to help others.

courtesy The News & Observer

But at the same time, he was also coming to terms with personal tragedy, which eventually became an inspiration, he says. When Brown was 20, his brother, Lunsford Bernard Brown II, was killed at age 27 in Afghanistan, where he was serving with the U.S. Army. “When I turned 27,” Brown says, “I was at the peak of my game, the peak of my career, financially successful.” But he woke up that morning of his birthday and found himself having a quarter-life crisis and comparing his own life to Lunsford’s. “There was no comparison,” he says. “He had lived a life of service, and I was living a life of fortune, fame, and entertainment. So I just really began to reflect on what I learned when I was a child growing up in church: Love thy neighbor. But what does that look like?”

Brown decided to follow the calling and honor his brother’s life, and says it was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. Learning to farm and maintaining the crops has not been easy, either. He and Tay run the farm with only the help of volunteers, and they’re raising six children, with a seventh on the way. “It’s been a very interesting journey,” Brown says, “but it’s really turned into something beautiful.”