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CREDIT | Tony Simmons
The News Herald
SOUTHPORT — Jason Leabo considers it something of a miracle that his family farm ever became a success. Even the decision to grow lavender happened because of a series of misfortunes and unlikely coincidences.
"The things that have happened are beyond any logical explanation," said Leabo, the owner of Southern Grace Lavender Farm, 1406 K O S Ranch Road in Southport.
A U.S. Air Force combat veteran, Leabo served for 11 years as a Security Forces Specialist providing security to aircraft, guarding dignitaries and providing security during combat missions, intelligence operations and bomb disposal activities. Duty took him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Guam.
After being honorably discharged, Leabo settled in the Florida Panhandle and joined the U.S. Army Reserve as a senior mechanic. He also works full time as an administrator, providing training and supply services to reservists.
According to biographical information provided by Leabo, he and his wife, Kari Leabo, inherited a 3.31-acre property from Kari's mother, Glenda Jean Miller, in 2013. Together with their daughters, 9-year-old Jamie and 7-year-old Amber, they began renovating a small manufactured home on the property and moved in about December 2013.
They sold the timber on the acreage and it took them nearly three years of raking and burning daily to clean up the debris and remove the stumps. In 2015, Leabo started work as a hardware associate for Home Depot, where he learned about the various tools he would later use to build things on the family farm. Then he was transferred to the Garden Center, where he gained much more knowledge that would be useful later.
As told on their company's website, Kari Leabo purchased books such as "The Backyard Homestead: Garden, Orchard, Mini Farming" and others that gave Jason Leabo the idea to grow vegetables, nuts and fruits, herbs and grains, and to raise poultry, farm animals and bees.
In October 2015, the family purchased 18 peach trees and planted a small orchard in their front yard. But the shallow well on the property wasn't up to the challenge of watering all those trees. In addition, Leabo learned, peaches are especially demanding when it comes to pest management and diseases.
"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 have in stock," Leabo said.
He struggled with depression between 2016-18, which is common to military veterans as well as those trying to keep a small business afloat. Watching bills pile up and thinking his family might be better off collecting his life insurance than having him in their lives, he began to distance himself from everyone.
"One of the worst feelings in the world is feeling either irrelevant or invisible," he said.
And that's when the first of a series of improbable miracles came their way.
Jason Leabo grew up without knowing his father. In 2018, his brother Trevor Leabo — who had a different father but the same mother as Jason — bought him an Ancestry DNA test kit so that they could be linked on Trevor's family tree.
On April 30, 2018, at what Leabo described as "one of the darkest periods" in his life, his DNA test results returned via email — and he was linked to his father's side of the family, too. That same day, Leabo contacted his cousin, Kyra Brown, who connected him with his father's sister. Sadly, his father had died six years prior, but the connection resulted in discovering that Leabo had a sister, Lisa Meidl, who lives in California.
"Had I not opened that email, I strongly believe that I wouldn't be alive today nor would I have received the answers to all the questions I had about my father," Leabo said. "That email made me whole."
Leabo bought a plane ticket for Meidl, who flew to Florida. During her visit, he received answers to questions that he had essentially buried within himself and thought would never be answered.
"Up to that moment, it was as if a piece of me was missing," he said.
At that time, the farm was called Leabo's Orchard and Family Farm, where they were still struggling to grow peaches, as well as corn and pumpkins, while raising chickens, ducks, turkeys and bees.
Leabo went to Fort Hunter Liggett, California, for his annual reserve training, and Miedl ferried him from the airport to the fort. On the ride, Leabo saw a field of purple flowers, which Miedl identified as lavender. She suggested he try growing that instead of the crops he was focusing on.
Online research revealed an 8-acre lavender farm could routinely earn more than $1 million dollars in revenue annually; lavender was cited as the top alternative cash crop for small farmers.
"That number really hit me because the military only paid me about $150,000 during the entire time I served on active duty," Leabo said.
More research followed. Leabo learned that 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. After "arguing and debating" with his wife, they spent about $6,000 and began planting 1,240 Lavender "Phenomenal" plants on 1/4 acre.
"In all fairness, my wife had every reason to doubt me, especially after our struggles and failures with the other crops," he said.
Then came Hurricane Michael.
To take the optimistic view, Hurricane Michael gave the Leabo family what amounted to a fresh start — because they lost everything except for their home and their lavender. All the outbuildings, chicken coops, peaches, corn, pumpkins — everything else was gone.
"It was as if God said, 'Nope, you can keep this but all this other stuff has to go,'" Leabo said. However, he added, "When Hurricane Michael took everything from me except my family, my home and my lavender, I knew exactly what tools I needed to rebuild everything thanks to the training I received at The Home Depot."
Like others in the path of the storm, the Leabo family has spent the years after Michael rebuilding.
"It's funny, one day I woke up to find a random shovel (a Truper landscaping shovel) in my front yard. I set it out by the curb for about a month but nobody claimed it, so I started to use it and I swear it's like a magic shovel because everything I use it for ends up looking good or doing well," he said.
Bad advice on fertilizers nearly doomed his new crop, however. Officials even told him no known varieties of lavender are recommended to be grown in Florida.
"One of the most common statements made to me was that you can't grow lavender in Florida, I don't care who you are," Leabo said.
In 2019, one of the hottest summers on record, temperatures reached 109 degrees at the farm, but the lavender plants thrived and the family celebrated their first blooms. However, various "experts" offered more advice on watering and fertilizing that caused terrible damage to the crop.
Leabo said his lavender looked like Charlie Brown's sad Christmas tree.
"I panicked, so I asked them what I should do," he said. "They said it was most likely a disease and to trim or cut the plant back. So I did."
The plants got worse. Doing his own research again, Leabo discovered lavender is commonly found in the Middle East and India, which is located on the 31st parallel — essentially a straight line right through his farm. Those plants commonly experienced temperatures reaching far above 100 degrees, with a quarter of the water and a quarter of the nitrogen-rich fertilizer that he'd been applying to his crop.
He responded accordingly and the crop recovered. Before long, Leabo was recognized by the Florida Department of Agriculture for establishing Florida’s first lavender farm in Southport, and he found himself being sought out by others for his "expert" advice.
"As a farmer, I don't know much other than failure and regret. So imagine how I felt when the state essentially began to consider me a lavender subject matter expert," Leabo said. "It was more pressure than I was prepared for, especially considering that I'm new and still learning myself."
When COVID-19 hit, area farmers markets shut down and the Leabo family started having customers at the farm. To help make ends meet, they starting hosting RV campers through a network called Harvest Hosts.
"One of the guests asked if we had electric to power his CPAP machine, so I went to Lowe's and purchased an extension cord," Leabo said. "Unfortunately, the extension cord wasn't strong enough for some of the larger RV's, and we became a rather popular RV stop."
The cost to install three 50-amp electrical hookups for the RVers was quoted at $4,000.
"I didn't have that kind of money, but felt compelled like it was very important to do," he said.
The same day the quote was received, a finance company called to offer a credit account, and Leabo was approved for a $4,100 limit.
"So we hired the electrician," he said. "They used a trenching machine, and because we returned it unwashed — mainly because we weren't notified that it had to be washed — we were assessed a $100 fee. Literally, the job was $4,100."
Leabo listed many more examples of help arriving out of the blue, including an Amazon package they hadn't ordered. Inside was a laser thermometer they had no use for — until Kari started making candles and needed a laser thermometer to measure the temperature of the wax.
About 20 minutes after a $2,000 debt unexpectedly showed up, Leabo got a notice that his Wayfair Mastercard, could now be used anywhere Mastercard was accepted and his $500 limit was being raised to $2,500.
Then, an hour after being told that prep work for an upcoming project would cost $1,200, a women's church group toured the farm and purchased exactly $1,200 of products.
One last example: A customer showed up and spent $180 at the farm store, "because they just happened to be in the area." The next day, his truck battery died and the replacement cost was $180.
"Problems and obstacles are the ingredients to create blessings and miracles," Leabo said. "I have experienced some pretty dark moments, but those moments have given me a greater appreciation for the light. I feel blessed."
Southern Grace Lavender Farm has expanded to include the sale of products made with their crop, including scented candles, skincare products for the body, face and hair, and a line of specialty products for those with sensitive skin.
Leabo said the farm's mission includes supporting and promoting lavender farms and the associated industry, connecting growers to buyers and providing education. For more information, email email@example.com.
"Rescue" is a song by American contemporary Christian music singer and songwriter Lauren Daigle.
When I first heard this song, it had more of an emotional impact on me then any song I have ever listened to.
Now that you've read my story, I invite you to watch this video and listen to the song with an open heart. For those who listen with open hearts will receive more revelation.
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