Episode 266: North Carolina’s Spring Forth Farm with Megan and Jonathan Leiss, Homesteaders and Flower Farmers
October 12th, 2016
Earlier this year, in January, I received an email from Jonathan Leiss of Spring Forth Farm in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina. His message was ultimately responsible for today’s episode. After introducing himself, Jonathan wrote: “My favorite episodes are your interviews with farmers . . . I know you aren’t in the Southeast often, but if you are, I want to recommend the Durham-Chapel Hill area as a great place to visit to see the resurgence of local flowers on the small farm and the creative ways farmers and designers are building relationships with customers.”
The email continued as Jonathan listed many of the folks in the NC “Triangle” (which also includes Raleigh) who comprise the progressive flower farming and floral design community there. I loved the inclusive point of Jonathan’s story — he told me about Spring Forth Farm and what he and his wife Megan are doing — and he listed florists and fellow farmers whose work is notable and worthy of my attention. “This is a very dynamic area for farming in general and right now that energy is reflected in the burst of local flowers on the market. If you are ever this way, please consider visiting . . . to see the energy of the American-Grown flower industry.”
It took some creativity with the scheduling and dozens of emails and a few phone calls, but that initial email from Jonathan sparked my interest in visiting an area of the country that I knew would teach me more about the Slow Flowers Movement. We have 23 Slow Flowers members in North Carolina and another five members in SC, so I felt the pull to connect on a more personal level.
Last month, I flew to Raleigh after several other travel stops, including attending the Field to Vase Dinner at Thistle Dew Farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania and spending the previous day in NY’s Hudson Valley with emerging flower farmers and florists in that region.
When Jonathan picked me up, I was at the tail end of a 12-day road trip, so you might think I would be exhausted. Yet, what he and Megan had in store for me was thoroughly rejuvenating! We drove to Hurdle Mills, NC, a rural area about 20 minutes north of Durham and Hillsborough, where both Megan and Jonathan grew up. I was greeted by Megan and the family dog, Mr. Bingley. There was a lot to see, including the fantastic, almost-finished farmhouse that Megan and Jonathan are building themselves, debt-free, using their savings and Megan’s salary as a kindergarten teacher.
Jonathan calls it their “slow home,” and you’ll hear about it in our conversation.
Here’s more about today’s guests:
Megan and Jonathan Leiss met in a garden and have been growing food and flowers together ever since, including growing all of the flowers for their wedding. Their farm and homestead, Spring Forth Farm, is located in Hurdle Mills, NC.
Megan and Jonathan started growing flowers commercially when they set out to create a homestead to provide food and a meaningful, simple life for their family. To support this endeavor, they started Spring Forth Farm as a homestead business. Spring Forth Farm uses sustainable, no-till farming techniques to grow fresh, seasonal flowers without the use of synthetic chemicals or fertilizers. These farming practices support an incredible biodiversity on the farm, which was in tobacco monoculture for a hundred years when Megan and Jonathan bought the land. Now dozens of pollinating and beneficial predatory insects, various amphibians and small mammals, hummingbirds, and songbirds visit the flowers and wild habitats on the farm. In addition to their flowers, Jonathan and Megan grow nearly all of their yearly supply of vegetables and donate crates of fresh produce to a local food pantry every two weeks.
Megan and Jonathan have intentionally simplified their business, focusing on providing florists with a reliable supply of carefully selected of “bread and butter” flower crops that are in demand week in and week out. By focusing on providing consistent supplies of fewer crops, Spring Forth Farm is able to supplies flowers to five florists and several wedding designers from just half an acre of annual production with a bit more in perennials. Spring Forth Farm also sells bulk buckets of flowers and foliage for DIY weddings and has a bouquet subscription program.
Megan attended Warren Wilson College, where she studied sustainable agriculture and education. Megan worked all four years on the college farm and organic garden and she has worked on several farms in the Hillsborough area as well. Megan learned about flower farming from Linda Chapman at Harvest Moon Flower Farm in Indiana. She is currently in her sixth and final year of teaching preschool, which has been instrumental in establishing the homestead.
Jonathan moved to Vermont for college, which seemed as far removed from North Carolina as he could get, lived in Oregon, and visited 45 of the 50 states before returning home with the ambition of becoming a firefighter. He has been working as a firefighter and EMT in Durham, NC since 2011. Like Megan, he spent many summers working on vegetable farms.
Megan and Jonathan both had dreams of buying farmland before they met, and they worked a variety of jobs that allowed them to save for it. Megan worked two summers in Alaska, one changing truck tires and one fishing salmon on the Bering Sea, and Jonathan traveled for two years with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, running a one-room school for the children and living on a train.
That sense of adventure has come in handy over the last two-and-a-half years as Megan and Jonathan have been living (with their pit bull, Mr Bingley) in a 7’x11′ pull-behind camper while they build their passive solar house. Along with friends and neighbors, they framed the house themselves, did the wiring, siding and many other parts of the construction, learning as they went. They are currently working on the finishing touches and will move in this fall.
In recognition of their accomplishments on their homestead, farm, and house, Megan and Jonathan were one of three families named 2016 Homesteaders of the Year by Mother Earth News magazine.
Our Slow Flowers Meet-Up was a huge success, thanks to so many who volunteered to help with setup, to bring food and drinks, and to drive incredible distances to join us — we had about 30 in attendance, flower farmers and florists from across NC, SC, Georgia and Tennessee.
It was a brilliant evening, despite the arrival of much-needed rainfall that everyone was grateful for. Before the community arrived, Megan and Jonathan and I sat down to record this episode.
Find Spring Forth Farm on Facebook here
Read more about the Leiss’s “slow home” here
Jonathan and Megan discuss how much they’ve appreciated the wisdom from Denise and Tony Gaetz of Bare Mtn. Farm in Shedd, Oregon; you can find that farm’s YouTube channel here.
Thanks for joining today’s conversation. I have had everyone I met last month, all our Slow Flowers Southern friends, on my mind this week as Hurricane Matthew has devastated the region. I’ve checked in with many of them and so far, flooding and storm damage is the worst anyone has had to endure. Sending you all my love and best wishes for recovering from this natural disaster.
And I’m sending a special thank you to my lovely Durham hostess, Katy Phillips of Poesy Flower Farm, for sharing her wonderful home, story and friendship during my stay.
The Slow Flowers Podcast has been downloaded more than 122,000 times by listeners like you. Last month, we reached 5,570, another record for the Slow Flowers Podcast! THANK YOU to each one of you for downloading, listening, commenting and sharing. It means so much.
I also want to thank a few folks who have made contributions to our transcript project. Thanks to two of my good Slow Flowers friends here in Seattle, including Tobey Nelson of Vases Wild, and Sandra Figel of Verbena Floral, for their contributions. Each transcript costs between $50 and $75 to produce, so I am grateful for their support. You can donate by clicking on the yellow PayPal button to the right of our home page.
Thank you to our lead sponsor for 2016: Certified American Grown Flowers. The Certified American-Grown program and label provide a guarantee for designers and consumers on the source of their flowers. Take pride in your flowers and buy with confidence, ask for Certified American Grown Flowers. To learn more visit americangrownflowers.org.
More sponsor thanks goes to Syndicate Sales, an American manufacturer of vases and accessories for the professional florist. Look for the American Flag Icon to find Syndicate’s USA-made products and join the Syndicate Stars loyalty program at syndicatesales.com.
A big bouquet of thanks goes to Longfield Gardens… providing home gardeners with high quality flower bulbs and perennials. Their online store offers plants for every region and every season, from tulips and daffodils to dahlias, caladiums and amaryllis. Visit them at lfgardens.com.
A fond thank you Arctic Alaska Peonies, a cooperative of 50 family farms in the heart of Alaska providing high quality, American Grown peony flowers during the months of July and August. Visit them today at arcticalaskapeonies.com
And finally, thanks to Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Formed in 1988, ASCFG was created to educate, unite, and support commercial cut flower growers. It mission is to help growers produce high-quality floral material, and to foster and promote the local availability of that product. Learn more at ascfg.org.
Next week, you’re invited to join me in putting more American grown flowers on the table, one vase at a time. And If you like what you hear, please consider logging onto Itunes and posting a listener review.
The content and opinions expressed here are either mine alone or those of my guests alone, independent of any podcast sponsor or other person, company or organization.
The Slow Flowers Podcast is engineered and edited by Andrew and Hannah Brenlan. Learn more about their work at shellandtree.com.