By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
PHOENIX (DTN) -- Jason Brown could end up achieving far more celebrity status among the agricultural community than he ever expected as an NFL offensive lineman.
Brown spoke Wednesday morning at the Ag Issues Forum hosted by Bayer CropScience, an event that coincides with Commodity Classic. Brown told a packed ballroom of journalists, bloggers and public-affairs people he believes farming is one of the better ways to reach youth and show them the importance of helping others with life's necessities. He got a standing ovation from the crowd following his talk.
"It's all in how you present the message, and what I'm trying to do right now is appeal to our youth and our local communities," he said. "So how do we get our youth more involved in one of our most basic and fundamental needs for life?"
Brown, 32, was drafted out of the University of North Carolina in 2005 and played for the Baltimore Ravens and the St. Louis Rams. He was released from the Rams in March 2012 and had a chance to sign with other teams, but instead opted to move into farming. As a newspaper article in 2013 stated, Brown's agent thought he was crazy to walk away from another NFL paycheck to farm. Still, Brown felt he had a calling to get into agriculture, so rather than extend his football career, he opted to buy a farm outside of Louisburg, N.C.
Though Brown operates 1,000 acres outside of Louisburg, he doesn't think a young person going into agriculture necessarily needs a large tract with major equipment to farm. People can make it on smaller tracts, particularly raising produce. "The niche markets right now are moving more towards produce that is locally grown," he said. "Some of the things people think are fads that come and go, but some of these crops have been around forever and we are just learning about them culturally."
Brown was looking for a way to donate food when a staff member from the Society of St. Andrew in North Carolina reached out to him. The society is part of a "glean network" that collects leftover or missed crops from fields for donation after farmers complete their harvests. Through gleaning volunteers, Brown said he and others were able to recover 10,000 pounds of cucumbers from about two acres on a neighboring farm. Given the harvest, Brown said thousands of pounds more in cucumbers could have been harvested from the acres, but they didn't have the labor to glean.
"I wept tears because the harvest was so plentiful, but the laborers were so few," he said.
This past year he grew sweet potatoes on five acres and donated the entire 120,000-pound haul to local food charities in North Carolina. Even charities were surprised because no farmer donates an entire crop like that. This year, he plans to double that sweet-potato crop to 10 acres, "which hopefully we'll harvest 250,000 pounds of potatoes and continue to double over the next couple of years until we get to about 1 million pounds."
He noted there was a learning curve to growing sweet potatoes. He chose sweet potatoes to grow and donate because they are nutrient dense and have a long shelf life. Other farmers in the area who grow sweet potatoes also helped and offered their advice.
"I still have sweet potatoes in my basement that are sprouting right now, and they are going to be awesome for months to come," he said.
This summer he plans to expand his farm into sweet corn, watermelons and cucumbers. He's looking for crops that are fairly easy to cultivate and to harvest. He also noted the local popularity of collard greens.
"Talking to our local food banks, they can't keep enough collards in supply to keep up with the demand," he said.
Responding to a question, Brown said people often ask him about his production practices, such as whether his farm is organic. He noted adhering to organic practices is more labor intensive and can drastically increase the price of production.
"We are trying to do the greatest good for the greatest amount of people," he said. "I understand culturally there is a lot of push or shift for organic agriculture out there, but in feeding a growing nation, it is very hard to do. ... So for me, when I can feed 3,000 people versus 1,000 people by farming organically, it's very hard for me to do so."
He added, "I love nature, I love the environment, I want to be the best steward of this Earth, this beautiful Earth that we have, but at the same time we have to involve science."
In his philanthropic efforts, Brown is concentrating on recruiting people to come out and help harvest the crops. He now gets calls from around the country from groups seeking food donations as well as seeking ideas for growing their own similar farms or acres. He noted there are plenty of organizations asking people to donate their wealth. He wants to go beyond throwing money at a problem. "I don't want your money. I want your heart. I want your time."
Donating time and labor to agriculture, Brown thinks, will translate into more people wanting to become farmers. Yet, Brown noted his own farming knowledge is limited to three years in the field. He can offer ideas of what he has done on his farm, but he suggested people turn more to experts such as agricultural Extension agents or agronomists.
Brown acknowledges he is a dreamer trying to change the world by getting others to buy into his charitable mindset for food. He explained he's trying to take whatever celebrity status he has left from his football days to show children the importance of helping others with necessities -- food, clothing and shelter.
"There's more to life than just entertainment and sports," he said. "What's even more important is focusing on some of our basic and fundamental truths in life."
The country needs to get back to the World War II effort of "victory gardens," he said. More fruits and vegetables are needed nationally, but grown locally, he said. Brown likes the idea of harvesting so much donated local fruit that people might be able to barter for donated fruits from other parts of the country, such as swapping northern apples for Florida oranges. "If there is any tree that someone should plant, why not plant a tree that produces fruit?"
He also plans to have several youth groups out to his farm as well as bring in more volunteers this fall. He hopes to have 1,000 volunteers out this fall to help get the crop in for community organizations.
"This is going to be people from all ages, all different walks of life actually out there on the farm, getting dirty, seeing where their food comes from first-hand," he said.
For more information on Brown and his farm, go to http://www.wisdomforlife.org/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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