Despite all his talent on the football field, Jason Brown has always wanted his legacy to extend beyond the white lines of the gridiron.
“I wanted people to remember me for my heart and community service and how much I’ve given back,” he said.
The athletic talent led Brown to UNC-Chapel Hill where he was a three-year starter at center for the Tar Heels, and then to the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams.
But it was that drive to make an impact, rooted in his upbringing and fostered at Carolina, that led Brown to leave football at the age of 28 and instead cultivate a 1,000-acre farm to combat food insecurity in North Carolina.
“At Carolina, it just gave me a sense that I wanted to make an impact,” he said. “When you’re there, you have a sense that you want to be a part of something special — no matter who you are. When you leave, you wanted to do the same thing. You want to be a part of something special and you want to do something special out in the world to make an impact.”
Today, Brown’s First Fruits Farm donates more than 200,000 pounds of sweet potatoes to local food banks, directly helping community members put food on their tables.
“We are a donation-first farm,” Brown said. “My wife and I made a covenant with God that whatever we produce on his farm, that we’re going to give our local communities our first fruits of whatever is grown from our farm.”
NFL star to farmer
When it came to playing college football, the atmosphere and culture at Carolina drew Brown to Chapel Hill.
In the classroom, he studied interpersonal communications to prepare for a career in motivational speaking, with hopes of encouraging and inspiring young people. On the football field, he became one of the nation’s best centers.
Brown was twice nominated for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to college football’s top centers, and was an All-American his senior year.
After he graduated in 2005, the Baltimore Ravens drafted Brown in the fourth round of the NFL draft. He played there for four seasons before signing with the St. Louis Rams as a free agent in 2009 with a five-year $37.5 million contract. It was the most lucrative deal for any center in the league.
But just three years later, Brown hung up his cleats to begin his next career: a farmer of an old dairy farm in Louisburg, North Carolina.
The career change was inspired by his brother Lunsford Bernard Brown II, who had died nearly 10 years earlier while serving in Iraq as an Army specialist.
“When I turned 27 years old, that was the same age that he was when he was slain in service, and I began to examine my life and everything that I had accomplished over the course of 27 years and his life and everything he had accomplished,” Brown said. “To tell you what, there was no comparison. I couldn’t walk a mile in his shoes. That began to lead me to re-examine my lifestyle and to rethink that life of entertaining folks and really getting into the service industry.”
‘A story of faith’
The career jump, Brown admits, was a “huge leap of faith.”
He didn’t even know how to farm. But it was a mission he felt called to do.
“North Carolina is very much a food insecure state,” he said. “There’s food deserts rampant all across North Carolina. One in six people — especially in our youth, the children — don’t know where their next meal will come from.”
Throwing money at the problem, he said, wasn’t cutting it. Brown wanted to be in the fields where he felt he could more directly address the problem of food insecurity.
With the help of virtual lessons via YouTube videos and the Louisburg community helping in the fields, Brown’s First Fruits Farm has harvested hundreds of thousands of sweet potatoes since 2014.
“It’s our state vegetable,” Brown said. “North Carolina is the sweet potato capital of the world. It just makes sense as a donation crop — they’re easy to cultivate, easy to harvest, long-term storage and nutrient dense.”
Each and every pound of those harvests has made its way to local food banks, helping feed the hungry in Brown’s community.
“This should be the norm,” he said. “It should be the norm for us to have compassion and to share love with our fellow neighbors and our communities. I don’t want it to be something that somebody really celebrates me for, but says that ‘Jason Brown, he led this awesome effort of inspiring love and change and that we could all do this together.’”