Slow, Cut Flowers and a Solar Home

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The Leisses each grew up longing for a life that revolves around gardening and nature.
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So many neighbors helped the couple raise their home’s walls that there was sometimes one helper per stud.
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The tobacco barn (far left) and hoop house have been essential elements of the debt-free farm.

Each year, we salute the resourcefulness, commitment, and gumption of remarkable homesteading families with our Homesteaders of the Year awards. Megan and Jonathan Leiss, one of three winning families for 2016, have set an inspiring example of the challenges and rewards of a self-reliant life. From 12 acres in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, this couple sells cut flowers through their business, Spring Forth Farm. Megan and Jonathan have lived in a 7-by-11-foot remodeled camper since purchasing their property in 2013, which has allowed them to build their solar home slowly without a mortgage — a process that has been a source of experimentation, education, and community. They’ve worked to reclaim and rebuild soil that grew tobacco for at least a century, and their primary farm crop is flowers. In the following interview, the Leisses detail their DIY lifestyle.

How did you choose cut flowers as your market crop?

Our area is saturated in vegetable production, but we found an opening in the local-flower movement. Now, we grow cut flowers for florists, weddings, and weekly subscribers. Appreciation of local products has moved beyond food, and on a per-square-foot basis, flowers are a profitable crop compared with most vegetables.

What inspired you to start down the homesteading road?

We both grew up in North Carolina and longed for a life that revolved around gardening and that embraced the beauty of the natural world. Megan grew up in the woods, where she was home-schooled and learned to garden. Before we met, we were each working to save money to buy land. Megan worked in Alaska in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and on a salmon gillnetter. Jonathan worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, living on a train and teaching the circus families’ children.

You’ve been living in a 77-square-foot camper and you still get along?

We’ve lived in this space for two years, we built our house together, and we run a business together, and our marriage is stronger than ever! When we moved onto our current property in March 2014, the only structure was a 100-year-old tobacco barn. We remodeled a 1969 Frolic camper to fit inside the barn and offer us privacy and protection from the elements. For the first six months, we didn’t have electricity or running water, but we now have a well. For bathing in summer, we heat water in a hose and then wash in a tub. (One of us stands guard to make sure no neighbors surprise us.) In winter, we shower at work. Megan works 30 hours a week teaching preschool, and Jonathan is a firefighter for the City of Durham.

Sounds as though DIY is how you roll.

We’ve done most of the work on our three-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot solar home ourselves and are thrilled that we’ll complete it without a mortgage. We’ve learned valuable skills, such as plumbing and electrical, and are learning new skills as we go. We’ve salvaged 1-by-5-inch tongue-and-groove pine boards that used to be roof decking on our church’s 1891 chapel, and used this beautiful heart pine as flooring, counters, and trim. By the time we finish, we’ll have learned some woodworking by making built-in bookshelves and tables, and some stonework by building our hearth.

The DIY skill that we apply most on our homestead is food production, which is at the heart of what we do. Our goal is to provide all of our own produce, meat, and eggs, but we aren’t there yet. Last year, we grew 11 beds of vegetables, which provided nearly all of our produce and allowed us to share with family, friends, and neighbors. We also donated approximately 50 crates of produce to a food pantry.

What renewable energy features does your homestead employ?

We designed and built our home with energy efficiency in mind. The solar home is oriented south for maximum solar gain in winter and has wide eaves for shade in summer. Last winter, with no heat running in the house, we were amazed at how much warmer it was inside. The large, south-facing roof has room for 24 solar panels, which we plan on having installed this year after we move in.

The house is well-sealed and well-insulated for energy efficiency, and our radiant floor heat, woodstove, on-demand water heater, and mini-split air conditioner are all very efficient.

What resources have you found most helpful?

Our best resources have been people. When we moved onto this land and started building, our neighbors would stop by to introduce themselves and to meet this new couple who had just moved next door — into a tobacco barn. Moving to a rural area, we worried that we’d be socially isolated, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Formerly an editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, K.C. Compton is now living near Seattle, where she enjoys daily access to fresh seafood and abundant farmers markets.