Farmers and football players know that not every season, or every down, will go their way. But they also know that they have to pick themselves up and keep going. 

Jason Brown, a former pro football center lineman turned farmer, brought a message of perseverance to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s (IFBF) annual meeting last week in Des Moines.

“I like to call it the ‘Curious Case of Jason Brown,’” he joked with annual meeting attendees Dec. 7.  “I think a lot of people didn’t believe me when I said I was leaving football to start a farm.”

Brown was, at one time, the highest paid center in the NFL, after signing a contract worth almost $40 million in 2009 to play for the St. Louis Rams. But by 2012, Brown said, God had different plans for him.

“I was a millionaire living in a mansion in St. Louis, and I was going through a midlife crisis at 29 wondering why I wasn’t happy,” Brown said.

After a lot of prayer and soul searching, along with some pretty intense conversations with his wife, Tay — who had a successful career as a dentist in St. Louis — Brown made the move, buying 1,000 acres in his home state of North Carolina, which he dubbed First Fruits Farm.

Conflict resolution
  A lot of Brown’s internal conflict arose from a family tragedy at the start of his junior year of college. 

Brown’s older brother, Lunsford Bernard Brown II, had enlisted in the Army following Sept. 11, 2001. He was assigned to the intelligence service and deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003, while serving in Iraq, a mortar shell exploded right in front of Lunsford Brown, taking his life and sowing the seeds of discontent in Jason Brown’s career.

Brown wore one of his brother’s damaged and jagged-edged dog tags against his chest for every game and practice of his football career.

“I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to stay angry about losing him because I thought that anger gave me strength,” Brown said.

The knowledge that his brother had given the ultimate sacrifice in service to others also weighed on Brown throughout his career. 

“When I was 27, the same age my brother was when he died, I asked myself what I had done for others,” Brown said. That thought led directly to the launch of First Fruits Farm a few years later.

Fruits farm
The whole idea of the farm is based on giving away the “first fruits” of his crops instead of leftovers or excess production, Brown said. He noted that North Carolina is a productive ag state but is also plagued by food insecurity and food deserts — areas without easy access to grocery stores and restaurants.

“It’s weird to realize that you can be surrounded by agriculture but still have neighbors who are starving,” said Brown. “God wanted us to grow good food to feed our neighbors.”

First Fruits Farm grows produce, primarily sweet potatoes and cucumbers, but also what he called a ‘salad bowl’ of vegetables including lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini and sweet corn. “Anything you can harvest fresh out of the field and eat it that day, that’s what we try to grow,” said Brown, whose farm has donated more than 1 million pounds of produce to area food pantries and churches.

The next generation
To help fund the farm’s charitable efforts, the Browns welcome visitors to the farm for special events and celebrations like weddings. They now average about 40 weddings a year at Amazing Graze Barn, their event space.

The Browns also have a small dairy and milking parlor, which lets visitors see the process of producing fresh milk and cheese up close.

Agritourism also allows Brown to spread the gospel of agriculture to new generations of would-be farmers.

“I’m one man, just one farmer amongst so many thousands of awesome farmers around the country. What I’m really trying to focus on is education and inspiring the next generation (to keep farming or return to the farm),” he said. “I look around at the opportunities in agriculture and I think, ‘Hey, I really want to be put out of a job’ by young people taking over.”

He also joked about dealing with labor shortages on his farm. “We found a solution for that. We’re growing our own farm labor at home,” he said, in reference to his eight children.

When asked about his motivation nowadays, Brown said everything changed for him after moving to the farm. 

Once he knew that he was having a positive impact on his community and state, he was finally able to release the anger and hurt from losing his brother. 

Brown had found his mission and was going to give everything he had to it.

“There’s been times out on the farm that I’ve felt like an utter failure,” Brown said. “But that’s when the farm grit comes in, knowing that to get out there and repair that equipment when it breaks down, you have to stick to the game plan. Use the off season to improve your farm, then get back out there in the spring and sow some seeds in faith — always looking forward to an awesome harvest.”