(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Young Alumni citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards ceremony and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Jason Brown ’05 doesn’t believe in throwing money at a problem, though when he was the highest-paid center in the NFL, he presumably had some to toss about. Instead, he throws his heart at it.
In 2012, at the height of his professional football career, Jason retired from the St. Louis Rams, bought a thousand acres of farmland in Louisburg and watched YouTube videos to teach himself how to plant sweet potatoes.
That was the birth of First Fruits Farm, a nonprofit that Jason and his wife, Dr. Tayeashai Brown ’09 (DDS), founded to tackle hunger in North Carolina and teach young people life lessons through the sometimes fickle life of farming.
Jason grew up in Henderson, about a half hour’s drive from Louisburg, where he and Tayeashai and their eight children run the farm. He had planned to go to N.C. State for a degree in landscape architecture so he could take over his father’s landscaping business. But UNC offered him a full football scholarship before he’d even made an official visit, and that switched his life’s path.
Faith, family, football and now farming have guided Jason through life. He relied on the first three in September 2003, in the middle of his junior season, when he learned his older brother, Lunsford, had been killed in Iraq while shielding his troops from shrapnel in a mortar attack. Every player and coach on Jason’s team came to the funeral.
During his pro career, Jason received the Walter Payton Award from the Rams for his community service in St. Louis and with veterans. When he turned 27, the age at which Lunsford died, he began to focus on how he might live into his brother’s legacy. He’d achieved every success he could imagine, personally and professionally. He asked God what was next. And God made him a farmer.
In rural North Carolina, an area blanketed by farms, as many as one in four children don’t know from where their next meal will come.
Poverty doesn’t have to be synonymous with hunger, Jason decided. First Fruits Farm could fight food insecurity and, through programs Jason and Tay added later, teach new generations where food comes from and the importance of agriculture and sustainability.
With the land, a single used tractor and the mentorship of a neighboring farmer, Jason planted five acres of sweet potatoes that first year. As harvest time neared, he called the Society of St. Andrew, which recruits volunteers to glean the leftovers from a field after a harvest. He said he didn’t need gleaners; he needed people to harvest. He was giving away all of the produce to local food banks and nonprofits.
The Bible talks about faith that can move mountains. Jason saw firsthand how faith, and hundreds of volunteers from the Society of St. Andrew, moved mountains of sweet potatoes. That first five-acre plot he planted yielded 120,000 pounds of them.
Since then, First Fruits Farm has produced, harvested and given away more than a million pounds of food. Jason has expanded to corn, squash, tomatoes and cantaloupe. He has planted pecan trees and grape vines. He Googles to find innovative farming techniques. Recently he doubled the germination success rate of seeds into plants and cut labor in half by using cinder blocks lined with plastic and filled with water to create floating trays.
Farming being farming, you can do everything right and still fail. Jason remembers the year he had 600 volunteers ready to harvest what they thought would be 250,000 pounds of sweet potatoes. But when the tractor turned up the plants, they found only 3,000 pounds to donate. Everyone in the field learned a lesson in coping with disappointment and loss and finding the resilience to get up the next day and start again.
Five years ago, Jason started the Sow-a-Seed program, sending seeds from the farm around the world. He urges schools to plant trees. He opens the farm for field trips that give students a service-learning opportunity, as well as a chance to get lost in the corn maze, take a trolley tour of the fields and have lunch in the dairy barn.
The Society of St. Andrew honored Jason with its 2017 Feeding the Carolinas Award. That success has not gone to his head. He’s still driving a tractor through the fields, albeit a new one, with air-conditioning, donated by a philanthropist impressed by Jason’s own generosity.
Beyond the volume of food his farm donates is the way he gives. His work is deeply relational. He wants to inspire people to take the joy and energy to change with them when they leave the farm. He encourages people to make their own communities and neighborhoods better.
Many people want to change the world for the better. Jason has a plan and is making it work.
Read a story about Brown in the July/August 2015 Carolina Alumni Review: