by Enrico Villamaino
On May 5, 2010, Jason Brown turned 27 years old. In his own words, he was at “the top of the mountain…the top of the world.”
As an all-star tackle, guard and center who never missed a single game in his career at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Brown had made a big impression with professional football scouts. Considered one of the best centers in the 2005 NFL draft, the Tar Heel was promptly snatched up by the Baltimore Ravens. After his tenure in Charm City, Brown signed on with the St. Louis Rams in 2009 in a deal that made him the highest paid center in the NFL.
Despite all of this, that birthday in 2010 was not as happy as it should have been. His time with the Ravens and the Rams had seen him grow wildly successful, both professionally and financially. His 2003 marriage to his wife Tay and the recent birth of their son JW enabled him to grow into the family man he’d always wanted to be. Nevertheless, something was missing.
“I was very stressed. I always seemed anxious, despite how well everything was going with football and my family. I wasn’t sleeping as soundly as I should. I just didn’t feel like I was doing all I was supposed to be doing,” he said.
Brown calls his transformation from football player to farmer a “story of faith.”
His father, Lunsford Bernard Brown, had instilled in Jason and his older brother Lunsford II the importance of a hard day’s work. He would return home in the afternoon from his government job and take his sons along with him on his landscaping jobs in the evening. “I tell you, he worked from dawn to dark!” chuckled Brown. It was during this time that Brown learned how much joy working with his hands brought him – and also that he had a bit of a green thumb.
Lunsford II, seven years Jason’s senior, enlisted and served honorably as a specialist in the U.S. Army. Specialist Brown was killed on Sept. 20, 2003 in a mortar attack in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. He was 27 years old.
Brown realized on that birthday that he was as old as his big brother ever got to be. “I felt embarrassed when people told me I was their hero for playing football. My brother showed me what a real hero is. He made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. In measuring his life against his brother’s, Brown realized that he needed to be doing something more. “My brother wore size 14 shoes, and I wear a size 16. Nevertheless, he left some big shoes for me to fill, and I felt like what I was doing at that point in my life wasn’t enough to do it.”
Brown, always a man of faith, believed that he was being called in a new direction. Wanting to live in the Christian ideal of serving his fellow man, he walked away from the NFL, and lucrative contract offers from the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers, to become a farmer.
To facilitate his sojourn from the gridiron to the garden, Brown purchased a piece of property in Louisburg, NC. “It’s about 1,000 acres,” he explained. “About 250 acres are tillable land. And we’re currently using about a quarter of that.” He named it First Fruits, because he was determined to share the very first fruits of his farm with the hungry in eastern North Carolina. “One in five children in our surrounding counties is food insecure. I can’t stand by and do nothing while that’s happening.”
His approach to farming is almost ministerial, and he engages in what he’s dubbed “philanthropic farming.” He has no staff. All the farm’s labor is performed by the Brown family and a dedicated bevy of volunteers. Some volunteers are individuals, like his friend Dave Eaton. Others come in groups. “We’ve got some great partnerships,” he said. “We work with the Society of St. Andrew. They supply us with over 500 volunteers to help harvest and glean our fields.”
After their first growing season, Brown demonstrated his commitment to helping others. “God placed it in our hearts to give away our entire first harvest,” he said. He likewise donated his entire crop in his second and third seasons.
While there are a number of crops grown at First Fruits, sweet potatoes are by far their biggest crop. “Sweet potatoes are nutrient dense, easy to harvest and have a comparably longer shelf life,” he explained. As of autumn 2019, First Fruits has donated over one million pounds of sweet potatoes to the needy.
Like many professionals who have made the mid-career change to farming, Brown has been able to utilize the skill set that served him well in his prior vocation. “As a football player, I became very good at watching game footage and learning from those films – what not to do, what to do, what to do better. I’m still able to do that now. I’m basically a YouTube farmer!” he joked.
Jason and Tay now have eight children, and their oldest, JW, is now 12. “JW passed the eight-week course and is now a certified beekeeper in the state of North Carolina,” Brown boasted. JW helps out with the apiary at First Fruits. According to Brown, “Eating local honey is proven to help with allergies. We’ll be looking to expand out beekeeping operation in the future.”
They’re not just looking to expand their honey production. “We’re going to be planting 150 apples trees and pecan trees. We’ll also be doing our part to bring back the American chestnut tree,” he said. “We’re also taking advantage of the muscadine grapes that grow wildly on the property. They have a lot of untapped health benefits. They even seem to inhibit cancer cell growth.”
Asked what’s more taxing on the body, a career in the NFL or farm work, Brown laughed loudly. “I’ll tell you what, brother. After working a few hours on the farm in a North Carolina June, I’m feeling soreness in back muscles I never even knew I had!”
Asked the more serious question of how he feels now compared to how he did on that birthday 10 years ago, Brown is unsurprisingly sanguine. “I sleep like a baby. There’s no more stress or anxiety,” he said. “I know I’m doing exactly what God wants me to.”
For more information visit wisdomforlife.com/firstfruitsfarm.