Offensive lineman Jason Brown retired abruptly from the NFL in 2012 in order to tackle something bigger than anything he’d faced on a football field: sweet potatoes.
Brown, then 29, moved with his wife, Tay, and their children from Missouri, where he’d played with the St. Louis Rams, back home to North Carolina, where he bought 1,000 acres in Louisburg. Overnight, he went from football star to family farmer. “For most people, it doesn’t make sense—why would you leave an awesome NFL career?” he says.
But Brown wasn’t going to become just any farmer. He would give away nearly everything he grew. “I didn’t feel I was just supposed to use my millions to buy food and donate it. I had to be out there doing the work and leading the way,” he says.
Brown is deeply religious, and this radical step came to him one day when he was struck by an overwhelming feeling that he had a purpose beyond sports. “Farming chose me; it was my calling in life,” he says. “I’m that guy who left a life of materialism and fame to follow a path much more humbling.”
Only one problem: Jason didn’t know the first thing about farming. So he did what all novices do today—watched hours of YouTube videos. Then he partnered with another local farm that helped him cultivate and plant fields of sweet potatoes. He named his land First Fruits Farm.
In early fall of 2014, the first harvest was ready. Fifty pickup trucks from food pantries and churches arrived at the farm and loaded up 120,000 pounds to distribute locally. In 2015, First Fruits Farm expanded its sweet potato donations to food banks across eastern North Carolina.
Jason uses his unusual story to show local youth what it takes to grow food from start to finish and to see it as the miracle that he does. “They get that food doesn’t just magically appear in the grocery store or restaurants,” he says. “This is ground zero as far as making a difference.”