In 2003, a mortar round rained down on a U.S. Army tent near Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, exploding after striking a table, and killing 27-year-old Lunsford (Deucey) Bernard Brown ll. Twelve years later, the loss of his older brother ensures that past is present for North Carolina producer Jason Brown. “Agriculture hammers home a sobering perspective because farming is a demanding lifestyle that requires hard labor. Yet, at no time am I risking my life, dodging bullets, or worrying about a suicide bomber trying to kill me, and that perspective brings me clarity every single day. I don’t have to look for motivation beyond my own family.”
Pushed by his past and guided by what he feels is a divine call -- a life of service through agriculture -- Brown’s road to farmland is a most unlikely journey. Seven years after Deucey’s death, Brown was at the height of fame as a star NFL center for the St. Louis Rams. Accolades, titles, and acclaim were his daily fare – bolstered by a $37-million contract. By society’s standards, Brown had attained the pinnacle, yet he couldn’t shake persistent questions about Deucey’s death. “Football is wonderful and has allowed me to provide for my family, but what about service to others?” Brown couldn’t answer his own question and was torn by the contradiction.
In 2012, in the midst of spiritual struggle, Brown was released by the Rams – only to have the Ravens, Panthers and 49ers make lucrative offers. “I was in heavy prayer and asking God what to do. He showed me in my heart that agriculture was the means for me to make an impact in this world. I was in disbelief and knew nothing about farming.”
Convenience dictated that an act of service, rather than a life of service, would maintain Brown’s affluence and level of comfort. Instead, he declined the pleadings of his agent, left multiple NFL offers on the table and walked away.
The biggest initial leap involved securing land. Brown and his wife Tay already had been looking for a large tract of land in their home state of North Carolina, but for hunting, fishing and four-wheeling – not farming. Outside of Louisburg, they found their Eden set in 1,000 acres of rolling hills and dark, sandy loam. “I was afraid. People see a pro athlete and start licking their chops because they often think they can take that athlete to the cleaners. But my fears were unfounded.”
Brown bought the 1,000-acre farm in 2012 and spent all of 2013 working on electrical issues, carpentry and plumbing – trying to get the farm buildings back to functionality – including renovating a 100-year-old farmhouse for his wife and three children.
In 2014, it was time to get in the field. How does a man go from the gridiron to a field of crops? With no pretenses, he embraced his lack of farming knowledge and set out to learn – anything and everything. “I didn’t care who laughed. I didn’t care about mistakes; I knew many were coming. My football career was filled with failures. So what? I don’t let failure define me, but I do use it to prepare eventual success.”
Producer Len Wester was already working a portion of the land and he offered Brown vital direction. In addition, Brown sought instruction from other farmers and ag professionals – anyone he felt would give him straight advice. “I sought the advice of trustworthy people that had nothing to gain by my mistakes, because I already knew I’d be making plenty. Sure, there are people that look at me and say, ‘He’s just an NFLer pretending to be a farmer.’”
It was a step of faith as Brown broke ground for the first time in his life, planting five acres of sweet potatoes. “Tay and I made a covenant to name whatever land God blessed us with as First Fruits Farm. We’d give the first fruits of every harvest to help people.” First Fruits Farm was born with purpose – to donate the initial portion of every harvest to food pantries and the needy. Brown’s five acres yielded 120,000 lbs. of sweet potatoes, and he partnered with the Society of St. Andrew – a nationwide gleaning network -- to distribute the crop. In addition, Lynn Wester offered 50 cucumber acres for gleaning that returned 10,000 lbs. of produce.
Michael Binger, regional director, Society of St. Andrew, oversees food distribution and gleaning in the Carolinas. “It’s simply not often that people plant crops to give away. We’re delighted to get food left over after farmers fulfill contracts, but people don’t normally give us first fruits. Jason’s generosity took us aback. When word got out about what he was doing, it echoed across the community. His story is often met with disbelief, and has already inspired others to plant crop segments in North Carolina just to give away to others in need.”
The Society of St. Andrew has offices nationwide and distributed 26 million pounds of food in 2014. Volunteers typically go in after harvest and glean produce that may be lacking in aesthetic appeal sought by grocery stores, and distribute it to soup kitchens and food pantries. “We get food in the hands of people that might not know where their next meal will come from. The Society of St. Andrew gleans a buffet of most any crop,” Binger describes. “Sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, blueberries, strawberries, corn, brocolli, cabbage, collard greens, cucumbers, lettuce, and peppers. We go after whatever we can get hold of for the hungry.”
First Fruits Farm has 10 acres of sweet potatoes in 2015 and hopes to see a 200,000 lb. yield that will go directly to food banks, pantries and churches. “Our goals are ambitious,” Brown notes. “In 2016, we want to continue ramping up production bit by bit. People from across the U.S. – the Midwest and California -- have contacted us and want to buy our produce.” Brown has started mapping out production plans in a drive toward diversification. He’s planning to add cucumbers, sweet corn, tomatoes, and watermelons – crops that are particularly conducive to gleaner harvest.
“I love life on our farm and I’m humbled each day. I’m literally learning something new every day because each day is unique.” Brown got a heavy dose of new learning in the fall of 2014, when Tay, pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, went into labor on the farm. “There was no warning. I did what I know how to do: prayed and calmed my wife.” Armed with a birthing kit and an instructional pamphlet, Brown delivered his child, a healthy boy named after his fallen uncle in Iraq -- Lunsford (Tre) Bernard Brown III.
Brown sums up his farming purpose with a cutting reminder. During his college football years at the University of North Carolina, with his self-worth pumped up by the insular nature of success, he once complained to his parents about the play of his teammates. “My mother lashed out with fury and told me to shut up. ‘Nothing you’re going through compares with what your brother deals with in Iraq.’ The words were piercing to my soul and exposed my shallow world. I would rather she slapped me. My brother was paying the ultimate price for our country while I was running around a football field.”
Brown brooks no excuses and says First Fruits Farm is only just beginning to open the door to a life of service through agriculture. “God has allowed me to be a steward and that’s my aim. I’m just getting my feet wet, but my eyes are wide open to helping others with my farm.”