Former NFL player at the center of feeding others

Summer Peacebuilding Institute hosts former St. Louis Ram at EMU luncheon

Jun 22, 2015 by and

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HARRISONBURG, Va. — When former star NFL center Jason Brown left the St. Louis Rams in 2012 to become a farmer in North Carolina, he admittedly had no idea what he was doing.

Jason Brown, a former NFL center for the St. Louis Rams, talks about his First Fruits Farm at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. The farm gives away all of its produce to hunger-relief  agencies and provides educational opportunities to youth, church and other volunteer groups. A group from EMU is being formed to attend the Nov. 7 Great Harvest Day at the farm. — Michael Sheeler/EMU

Jason Brown, a former NFL center for the St. Louis Rams, talks about his First Fruits Farm at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. The farm gives away all of its produce to hunger-relief agencies and provides educational opportunities to youth, church and other volunteer groups. A group from EMU is being formed to attend the Nov. 7 Great Harvest Day at the farm. — Michael Sheeler/EMU

“I don’t know anything about farming,” Brown said, during the “Frontier Luncheon” in late May at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. “I watched Youtube videos.”

He hasn’t let this knowledge deficit stop him from seeking a life of service, however.

Brown started First Fruits Farm in Louisburg, N.C., in 2013 after deciding to leave behind a successful NFL career. He was driven by the sacrifice of his brother, Army Specialist Lunsford Bernard Brown II, who died in Iraq in 2003, and by a strong calling that life meant more than the game of football.

Last year, First Fruits Farm donated more than 100,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 10,000 pounds of cucumbers to local hunger-relief organizations. From planting to harvesting to distribution, the farm relies on donations and volunteers that have helped Brown accomplish far more than he could on his own.

“Every step of the way, whenever there was a problem that we had, someone stepped up,” he said. “They would give us a call and say, ‘Heard about what you’re doing, don’t know exactly what you’re doing, but could you use this help?’ ”

Brown’s mission to produce a sustainable source of food for his community has been a leap of faith.

The sweet potatoes — a crop he chose for its nutrient density, long shelf-life and familiarity within the community — were planted for no charge by neighboring farmers. They were harvested by volunteer networks of gleaners and then distributed by local nonprofits.

First Fruits Farm also emphasizes the teaching and mentoring of young people in agriculture. Brown remarked that anyone could help on the farm, including his wife and their four children.

“If you visit my farm, I put you to work,” he joked.

Long-term solutions

Developing sustainable agriculture provides purpose for all members of the community and healthy, affordable food in an area where one in four children is food insecure on a regular basis. He said North Carolina’s rate is one of the highest in the U.S.

Brown sees the problem of hunger as “an issue of the heart.” Since leaving the NFL, he’s heard from many people who claim that he could have done more with the millions of dollars he would have made as the highest paid center in the NFL.

But throwing money at the problem is only a short-term fix. Brown said that only through truly committing himself to farming could he inspire others to practice agriculture for the benefit of themselves and their community. Production of locally grown food is how Brown hopes to combat hunger on a national scale.

“What I believe now is throwing my heart at the problem,” he said. “By doing this as a grassroots effort, there are literally thousands of youth, thousands of children — it has piqued their interest.”

Brown has set a goal for this fall of harvesting 10 acres of land to collect 250,000 pounds of sweet potatoes. He hopes the first Great Harvest Festival on Nov. 7 will attract more than 1,000 volunteers to harvest sweet potatoes and enjoy food, music and entertainment.

Additionally, he plans to begin growing summer fruits and vegetables and working with public schools to set aside land for fruit trees.

First Fruits distributes seeds to those interested in starting their own First Fruits garden. Since February, the Sow-A-Seed program has mailed seeds all over the world.

The concept of service isn’t new to Brown, a devout Christian. In 2008, he started the nonprofit organization, Wisdom for Life, which promotes biblical literacy and is the umbrella organization under which First Fruits Farm operates. In 2010, he won the Rams’ Walter Payton award for his community service, both in the metropolitan St. Louis area and in military and veteran outreach.

But now, in devoting all of his daily working hours to service, he’s found his niche.


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