Jason Brown, a former standout in the National Football League and at UNC-Chapel Hill, quit football because he wanted to feed the hungry.
He bought a sprawling 1,030 acre farm near Louisburg, complete with dairy barns and silos. Brown wasn’t a farmer, and he had a lot to learn, but he had a vision and faith.
Last weekend, his faith came to fruition when he gave away 46,000 pounds of sweet potatoes. He hopes to give away that many more Saturday.
“You look over a sweet potato field and you don’t see a crop,” Brown said. “The vines are kind of wilting. There is nothing there to pick. You’ve got to have faith.
“I went out to plow up the potatoes last week and looked behind the tractor. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite as beautiful as those big brown potatoes lying everywhere.”
Brown’s First Fruits Farm already had yielded 10,000 pounds of cucumbers, also given away.
About half the sweet potato crop has been harvested, helped by the Society of St. Andrews. Rebecca Page, the Triangle coordinator of the gleaning group, had about 200 people and 13 trucks in the fields last week and hopes to have at least that many again Saturday.
The group usually goes into fields after a harvest and gleans the crops that were missed, but Brown told Page that he wanted to give away the entire crop.
“Saturday was simply a wonderful day, but we’re in over our heads,” Page said of harvesting so many potatoes. “Potatoes are the perfect food, and there is such a great need. I know that it is all good and that this is wonderful, but when you are in the middle trying to organize something this big, there is some anxiety. We need a lot of help, but a lot of people are going to get food.”
St. Andrews is a national group that links gleaners with farmers. The group has no trucks or storage areas and coordinates with shelters, food pantries and other distribution points.
The Inter-Faith Foodshuttle.org got 9,063 pounds of the potatoes last week. Food pantries and shelters in Durham, Wake Forest, Oxford, Warrenton, Granville County, Knightdale, Garner, Raleigh and Henderson got many more.
“We recover about 7 million tons of food a year and gleaning provides 38 to 40 percent of the produce we get,” said Cindy Sink, the marketing and communications director of Inter-Faith. “Gleaning is a wonderful way to get healthy food to people in our community.”
Brown knew little about farming when he bought the former dairy, but local farmer Len Wester lent his expertise. The potato plants, called slips, which are shoots that grow from mature potatoes to form new potatoes, were donated after David and Allen Rose of J.B. Rose and Sons in Nashville learned Brown was giving away his harvest.
“Every step of the way there has been someone to help,” Brown said. “I needed some fishing rods so the kids could go fishing, and Dennis Brennan came and gave me a carful of fishing equipment. God provides.”
Brown said he knew nothing about gleaning and really didn’t have a plan for how to disburse the harvest until Page contacted him and told him about St. Andrews.
“Miss Rebecca is another person who was put in my life at the right time,” he said.
Brown, 31, is a native of Henderson and was a top high school recruit at Northern Vance High.
He signed with UNC and was a three-year starter at center. He was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2004 and was taken during the fourth round of the 2005 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens.
He started some at left guard for the Ravens during his first two seasons and started every game at center during 2007 and 2008. He signed a five-year free agent contract with the St. Louis Rams worth $37.5 million, including $20 million guaranteed, and started every game in 2009 and 2010, and 14 games during 2011 before being released in March 2012.
San Francisco, Carolina and Baltimore contacted him about possibly joining their teams, but he decided he wanted to pursue his dream of farming for others.
“What he is doing is unbelievable,” said Page, the gleaning coordinator. “The time, the effort, the work, the cost. And he gives it away.”
In the season of thanksgiving, Brown is counting his blessings and planning to help more. Brown hopes to plant at least twice as many acres of sweet potatoes next year, and he envisions a harvest celebration.
“A lot of churches have harvest celebrations this time of year, but they don’t harvest anything,” Brown said.
“I can picture 500, 1,000 people here gleaning the fields until noon and then having a celebration of the harvest with food and music. It would be a great celebration and fellowship.
“I can envision things. I look out over this farm and see such a blessing. This has been more than I could have ever imagined. I have been blessed more than I blessed others.”