It may sound romantic to start a small farm these days, but the reality is far from idyllic. Just ask Jason Leabo, who returned from military service in Guam to become a cottage farmer on a piece of land his wife inherited northeast of Panama City.
“When we moved here, the entire property was filled with pine trees,” Jason says, noting the tree-removal company left acres of stumps. “We raked and burned for three years.”
He then planted fruit trees, hoping to sell his produce at Panhandle farmers markets. He spent $50 for each peach tree from the University of Florida, and bought special machinery for the trees’ upkeep.
He later learned constant spraying is required to rid peach trees of bugs.
“Florida is only one of two states in the country that doesn’t typically get snow,” Jason says, “but it gets bugs. Consumers want organics, but if you do that it (the fruit) will look chewed up because the bugs get at it. You’re not going to get a flawless fruit if you don’t spray it.”
Jason spent time in the Air Force, then enlisted in the Army Reserve. When he was away from the farm and wearing the military uniform, he would return home to find his fruit trees destroyed by pests.
The constant spraying required to keep the bugs away proved too costly and time-consuming.
Jason tried other produce, such as pumpkins, but the end result proved the same.
“In theory, it’s all great to grow produce,” he says,“but it’s just not practical. It’s cheaper to go buy it at market.”
Discovering a New Crop
During a military stint in California, Jason saw lavender growing and started asking the million-dollar questions: What soil does it require? How much water do the plants need? Will bugs be an issue?
What he learned turned his farm around.
“Lavender needs crappy soil—check,” he says. “It attracts aphids and white flies, but both are decreased by ladybugs, and zoos and gardens release them—check. Lavender also doesn’t like water, maybe once a week at best, and I have a shallow well. All the questions were checked.”
Still, lavender performs best in drier climates, such as southern France, California and the Hill Country of Texas. Would lavender survive the humidity of Florida?
Local agriculture agents and master gardeners said no, but Jason learned of a lavender hybrid developed by Lloyd Traven of Peach Tree Farm of Pennsylvania. It had survived the humid conditions of Georgia, so Jason decided to give it a chance.
In early 2019, he bought Traven’s Phenomenal variety of lavender and put 1,240 plants in 10 rows, covered in black weed fabric with an irrigation system.
“It was a waiting game,” he says.
Unlike his other attempts at farming, the lavender bloomed that summer.
“They told me lavender wouldn’t bloom in Florida,” Jason says, noting Traven’s plants proved the experts wrong. “It just rubbed me the wrong way.”
Next up is a new lavender hybrid by Traven, Sensational, that Jason hopes to add to his little farm. It will be on the market in 2021. If all goes well, it will be growing in the Panhandle of Florida.
“The man is a genius,” Jason says of Traven. “It’s a very exciting time because we’re looking for a new cash crop for Florida.”
A Blooming Success
Today, the blooms of Southern Grace Lavender Farms are used to create bath and body products, spices and oils that Jason sells at the 30A farmers market in Rosemary Beach and at the St. Andrews farmers market in Panama City.
He recently built a small store on his property that is open to visitors who call for an appointment.
The Leabo farm includes a gazebo, picnic tables and a collection of chickens and ducks, not to mention Mello, a dog Jason rescued while in Guam. Mello greets visitors with a warning bark, but has a mellow personality and loves to be petted.
The farm is a perfect spot for garden club visits, school field trips and agricultural agents looking to discover a new cash crop for Florida.
In addition to planting more lavender, Jason plans to use his farm’s green space and gazebo for weddings and other special events, and create cottage houses as a bed and breakfast. He hopes to work with area farmers in cooperative efforts, such as using his lavender in locally produced honey.
His goal in creating Southern Grace is not only to provide lavender to the public, but to educate others in how to grow herbs. Jason is enthusiastic about the plant’s curative abilities, happily detailing how lavender has been used to heal cuts and scrapes for centuries.
“It’s so incredibly therapeutic,” he explains, noting it may be applied as a disinfectant and an antiseptic, among other uses. “The pain goes away in five minutes.”
Lavender has been known to repel insects such as mosquitoes and deer flies.
“It even makes a bee sting tolerable,” he says, referring to its anti-inflammatory properties. “Put it on before you go outside. If you get bit, it neutralizes the pain.”
Most people associate lavender with its scent, which is why the herb is used in soaps and other bath and body products.
Jason advises using lavender in cooking, steeping the herb in water and adding that to rice for a lavender-enhanced dish.
“You’re limited only by your imagination,” he says.
Jason says he may have found success, but it’s still a daily process at his humble farm. He shares his workday with the Army Reserve—at least until his retirement this summer—tending to his plants and creating products to sell at market.
Even though he finally hit on the right plant to grow, he stresses that small farming is anything but easy.
“I work all weekends at the farmers market,” he says. “Last night, I got home at 3 o’clock and we made lotions. It’s exhausting for sure. I never get a day off, but I love what I do.”
IF YOU WANT TO GO:
Southern Grace Lavender Farm is outside Southport, about 45 minutes north of Panama City. Call 850-348-3361 before visiting to set up an appointment and receive directions to the remote rural farm. For more information, visit www.southerngracelavenderfarm.com. To check for bloom reports, product updates and other information, visit Southern Grace’s Facebook page.