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In 2013, Air Force combat veteran Jason Leabo and his wife, Kari, inherited 3.31 acres in Southport from Kari's mother, Glenda Jean Miller.
They never imagined it would later become Southern Grace Lavender Farm, Florida's first lavender farm.
After completing renovations to the home on the property, the couple and their two daughters, 9-year-old Jamie and 7-year-old Amber, moved in.
A timber company bought the timber and cleared the trees. After two to three years of raking and burning almost daily to remove debris remaining from harvesting the trees, a forestry mulcher removed the stumps and remaining vegetation.
In 2015, Jason worked for Home Depot. Through his job, he learned about tools, hardware and gardening. Around the same time, Kari bought Jason a couple of books on gardening and farming. The knowledge he gained from his job and the books sparked his interest in growing vegetables, nuts, fruits, herbs and grains, and raising poultry, farm animals and bees.
Jason researched fruit trees and found a nursery that stocked several University of Florida patented fruit trees. He bought 18 various UF peach trees and planted a small orchard in the family's front yard.
Unfortunately, he experienced challenges with irrigating the trees due to having a shallow well. Over the next three years, Jason learned the hard way that peaches are especially demanding when it comes to pest management because peaches are attacked by many insects and diseases that must be controlled to have a successful crop.
"For the amount of money I had invested in growing and caring for peach trees including the tree itself, fertilizer, pesticide and fungicide— I could have probably gone to just about any market or grocery store and purchased every peach they had in stock," Jason says.
In 2018, Jason was still struggling to grow peaches. He planted corn and pumpkins, and the family had chickens, ducks, turkeys and bees on the farm.
Later in the year, the corn and pumpkin crops were destroyed by pests, and Jason had to leave the farm to travel to Fort Hunter Liggett in California for his annual Army Reserve training.
Jason's sister, Lisa Meidl, picked him up from the airport and drove him to Fort Hunter Liggett. During the drive, Jason saw a field of purple flowers. He asked his sister what it was. She explained it was lavender and suggested Jason try growing it.
When he returned home from training, Jason further researched how to farm lavender. He learned lavender thrives in poor soil, doesn't require a lot of water and doesn't have many pests. It's rabbit resistant, deer resistant and fungus resistant it was essentially the perfect crop because none of the issues he experienced with his previous crops caused problems with lavender.
Jason then researched which varieties of lavender grow well in the South. Through an article published by Southern Living, he learned about a variety of lavender called Phenomenal.
"After reading up on it and spending a lot of time researching, I was excited," Jason says.
He bought 1,240 Phenomenal lavender plants and began planting them on a quarter-acre of the farm. The family was still planting when Hurricane Michael struck.
Hurricane Michael gave the Leabos essentially a new start because they lost everything except their home and the lavender. All of their outbuildings, chicken coops, peaches, corn and pumpkins were gone.
Like so many other families in the area, the Leabos spent the next year rebuilding.
In 2019, Southern Grace Lavender Farm experienced one of the hottest summers on record. Despite temperatures reaching 109 F, the Phenomenal lavender plants were thriving, and the family saw its first blooms. The farm began to gain media exposure, and Jason was recognized for establishing Southern Grace Lavender Farm as Florida's first lavender farm by the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Today, Jason continues to be a part of the Army Reserve as a senior mechanic. He also works full time as an Army Reserve civilian out of the Army Reserve Center in Panama City, providing training, administration and supply services to Army Reservists.
Southern Grace Lavender Farm continues to be a work in progress. The Leabos' mission is to support and promote the U.S. lavender industry, support lavender farms, connect growers to buyers, and provide continual education for lavender growers and lavender users.
Jason and his family produce and sell lavender-based products, including scented candles and natural skin care products for the body, face and hair, including a line of specialty products for individuals with sensitive skin.
To learn more about Southern Grace Lavender Farm, the history of lavender or its many uses, email firstname.lastname@example.org to make an appointment or visit during regular business hours. Southern Grace Lavender Farm is open 10 AM to 4 PM Saturdays and Sundays and by appointment only Monday through Friday.
CREDITS | Gulf Coast Electric | December 2020
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