From Turf to Earth: Living with Intention

A professional football player retires early to feed the poor.

By Ray Linville

“It was a miraculous transformation,” Jason Brown says of his life change at the tender age of 27. The native of Henderson says that “everyone’s life has a purpose,” and he has no doubt that he knows his. The former professional football player is now a farmer in Franklin County, and he is overjoyed with the bounty of his land.

Imagine harvesting more than 100,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 10,000 pounds of cucumbers – and donating them all to alleviate hunger in North Carolina. More than 600 volunteers came to his First Fruits Farm near Louisburg last year to harvest and glean produce that was donated to food pantries and shelters in central and eastern North Carolina.

So successful was this effort that Brown has already declared Saturday, Nov. 7, as the date of his second Great Harvest Festival. He wants to more than double the sweet potato harvest and hopes that more than 1,000 volunteers will participate this fall. He also wants to attract more families by adding a corn maze, hayrides, fishing events, and live entertainment as part of the festival.

His harvest may seem miraculous because Brown had no experience in farming. Most of what he knows about growing crops he learned by watching YouTube videos. However, his football talents are well-known. Playing for UNC-Chapel Hill, Brown was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2004. Picked in the fourth round of the NFL draft, he played initially for the Baltimore Ravens before being signed by the St. Louis Rams.

As a highly valued and respected defensive lineman, he literally walked away from the money of a pro football career to pursue his life’s purpose – to feed the hungry. The change to farming, if not miraculous, would at least be considered a shock to most observers.

His wife, Tay, a dentist, was well-established in her dental career. Brown himself was in the midst of a five-year, $37 million contract with the Rams. “People were telling us that we were living the American dream,” he says. “We had all these titles and accomplishments. If you had told me that I would become a farmer, I would have laughed in your face.”

Perhaps it was a miracle that made Brown realize he was living a “life of selfishness,” as he describes it, while he was “playing sports and making money.”

A man of devout faith, Brown says, “God blessed me with the talents to play football, but the Holy Spirit began talking to me. I needed to go back to my priorities: faith and family.”

He says that God told him “to take care of my people, to feed my people. I took it literally – to feed.”

Was it a miracle that convinced Brown he needed to spend quality time with his children when he couldn’t because his football career was so demanding?

“I wasn’t raising our children – daycare was. I was spending long hours away from home,” Brown says. He and his wife have four children: J.W., 7, Naomi, 3½, Noah, 2, and Tre, who was born last November.

With the luxury of being on the farm with their children, the Browns are now homeschooling them. “It’s the most rewarding experience we’ve ever had,” he says.

Brown seeks opportunities to involve the children with farming duties. “We give them tremendous responsibilities, such as going out and retrieving eggs from the chickens. That’s teaching them great work ethic,” he says.

Brown occasionally uses Twitter to express his daily enthusiasm about farming and child-rearing. For example, in March he tweeted a photo of J.W. and a fish that he had caught with characteristic humor: “Give your child a fish and they will eat for a day. Teach them and then you can tell them to go fetch supper.”

Tre, the fourth child, is Lunsford Bernard Brown III and is named for Brown’s older brother who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011 just before turning 27, the year of transformation in Brown’s own life. “I was 20 when he died,” he says as he thinks about the loss of his brother and a life of purpose no longer available to him.

Although Brown is increasingly labeled a hero because of his dedication to alleviate hunger in our state, he reserves that description for his brother and other veterans. “At no point do I consider myself a hero,” he says. “People who live a life of service and risk their lives on a daily basis are heroes.”

Maybe another miracle is that Brown is physically fit for the rigors of farming after playing so many years as a starter on the defensive line of pro football teams. “I’ve witnessed so many players who were injured,” he says. “In contrast, I’ve been so durable. People would ask me, what’s your secret for being able to stay uninjured?”

Brown attributes his success to “the grace of God. I should have sustained injuries, but I totally understand it now. God steered me throughout my career and spared my body to work on the farm. He wanted me to stay healthy to farm,” he says, absolutely convinced that he has been watching miracles unfold in his life.

When Brown’s playing time with the Rams was coming to an end, he was pursued by not one but three other NFL teams – Baltimore came calling again, along with the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers. “I was tempted. They were three teams that I wanted to play for.”

Was it a miracle that led him to walk away from these teams?

After he had made a personal commitment to return to North Carolina and farm, Brown was concerned about a problem. “There was no land for us to move to,” he says.

The amount of acreage that he was interested in buying wasn’t on the market. Brown says, “I had been looking for land in North Carolina previously – selfishly for myself.” At that time, only 100 acres here or 200 acres there were for sale.

“It was impossible to find a large, continuous tract of land that had not been subdivided. That’s when I made a covenant with God: Whatever place you bless us with, we will call First Fruits Farm, and we will give your people the first fruit,” he says.

He attributes the unexpected listing of 1,000 acres in Franklin County on the market when he returned to his home state as a miracle. “It suddenly became available – that’s God’s glory,” he says of the land that he purchased and has transformed into First Fruits Farm. “It’s the most beautiful farm in North Carolina,” he beams, and it has become an important part of alleviating hunger in our area.

The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which serves the Triangle, southern Piedmont, and Sandhills, estimates that more than 17 percent of the population – more than 650,000 people – are “food insecure” in the 34 counties that it serves. Food insecurity is a broad term that means being hungry or at risk of hunger because regular access to food is limited, usually by a lack of money, at times during the year. Equally troubling is the number of children who are affected. Almost a third of children under 18 years of age in these counties are food insecure, according to the Food Bank.

Growing sweet potatoes probably doesn’t qualify as a miracle – except to Brown, the watcher of YouTube videos about farming. About sweet potatoes, he says, “It’s difficult to have confidence and know that they are growing. You can see the vines on the ground, but you can’t see the sweet potatoes under the ground.”

As he was on the tractor and plowing up the field last fall, he was amazed at the sight of sweet potatoes emerging from the soil. “They were popping out of the ground. They came out so big and so beautiful,” he says.

Leaving pro football was “a turning point,” Brown says in an understatement. “It was like going through a mid-life crisis at age 27. Some don’t experience that until their 40s, if they do.”

Was it a miracle? “It was a burden lifted off my shoulders,” he says.

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VOLUNTEER THIS FALL!

Interested in being a volunteer on Nov. 7 at Brown’s second Great Harvest Festival?

Contact one of the agencies – FBCENC, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle of Raleigh, or Society of St. Andrew (regional office in Durham) – that is coordinating volunteer duties.

In addition, stay up-to-date with Brown’s plans by visiting his website and Facebook, and following him on Twitter.

www.wisdomforlife.org