What started as a garden on family land to grow their own food, has turned into a labor of love and a small business for Lakeland couple Luke Smith and Olivia Mines. With a focus on holistic farming and regenerative agriculture, the couple is doing their part to produce good food and be good to the environment.
Both Smith’s and Mines’ families are generational to Lakeland. Happy’s Place belonged to Olivia’s grandfather, Harold “Happy” Lehman. “My grandpa bought Happy’s Place in the 80s if I’m not mistaken,” she said. According to Olivia, he would plant ornamentals, the occasional garden and built a barn and large structure with the help of his friends, for entertaining on the property where friends and family would gather on holidays.
The couple enjoyed spending time on the property. Luke, who has grown vegetables with his grandfather his whole life, saw untapped potential and suggested they try planting a garden and food forest. He explained the food forest concept as planting a variety of edible plants that all grow together and benefit each other. “You create a story with large trees, like mangoes, and that’s your cover – your overstory,” he said. “Then you have your smaller trees like guavas, papayas, pawpaws, or citrus and you put those underneath. Then you put your miracle berries and your blackberries underneath those and you grow it all together.”
The roughly 38-acre property is breath-taking old Florida beauty. A dirt driveway in north Lakeland opens into a large clearing of land – a natural sanctuary. The property is speckled with wild blackberries, deep purple beauty berries and brilliant bursts of the Zinnias that Olivia planted.
This organic splendor is sustained through the couple’s farming practices. Of the property’s 38 acres, only a portion of it is currently being used for farming. They have chicken and turkey coops, a few gardens, a shade house and a plethora of flowers and plants. Eventually, they would like to spread out. Luke said, “We want to tie everything in, keep it natural and give it a nice flow, yet make it productive.”
Smith explained their holistic farming approach. The young farmers, in their twenties, want to do everything with the intention of benefiting the land – for every action to have an equally positive outcome. For example, “With the chickens, we don’t want to use any chemicals with them that would make their manure any less beneficial to the bacteria in the soil. With the garden, we always want to think about ‘If we spray this on the plant, is that going to kill the bees too?’” he said. They are minimal with what they spray. When they do, they opt for OMRI, a certified organic spray. “We want to keep it safe for the environment. We don’t want there to be any negative effects at all,” said Smith.
The aspect of regenerative agriculture revolves around the same mutually beneficial principal. Smith said, “All the farming practices you want to be beneficial to the land and not just sustaining what you have – you want to always be adding to. Out here it has always been beautiful, and the land looks great and healthy and there weren’t ever any chemicals, to begin with. In some circumstances, you don’t want to be just sustainable because then you’re sustaining poor land. You always want to be regenerating and adding to.”
Luke said that not only is this type of farming better for the land but better for your pockets as well. “You’re spending less money, less inputs,” he said. Olivia smiled, “Less inputs, more outputs.”
Stewards of the Land
“I’ve always had a really deep connection to the land – with trees, nature, all of it. I could go out to the middle of the woods and just sit there all day,” said Luke. “I would never want to do anything to negatively affect it. She’s the same way,” he added, nodding toward Olivia.
Smith and Mines’ original vegetable garden expanded into flowers, then chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. They sell their flowers, herbs, and produce at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market each Saturday. Olivia even arranges beautiful herb bouquets to sell.
When they aren’t tending to the farm or at the market, Luke and Olivia tend to a few herb gardens they planted around town. Behind Good Thyme they have a bed with a variety of thyme, sage, rosemary, and basil. They also tend to their community garden at Honeycomb with peppers, ginger, and turmeric. “I love herb gardens,” said Olivia. “We like to take care of plants, so it works out.”
We made our way to the chicken coops for the first stop of our tour of Happy’s Place Farm. They started with just four chickens last year, some of which will be turning a year old this month. They’ve surpassed that number, to now over one hundred chickens and counting. They built the chicken coops themselves using wood from trees on the property.
Olivia says she gets at least two dozen eggs a day from their chickens. For now, she gives the eggs away to family and friends. Next year, when they are laying enough, the pair will offer eggs at the Farmers Market. To give the chickens new grass and plenty of bugs to eat, Luke and Olivia move the coops every day or so. “They get their non-GMO soy-free grain in the morning and water and snacks the rest of the day,” said Olivia. She gives them treats like pumpkin and beauty berries.
Next, we moved to the garden. The pair said that they are finally getting their gardens back together following the wet summer this year which flooded out the farm. Now, they are growing everything from radishes and carrots to broccoli, mustard greens, tomatoes, peppers, and squash.
Some of what they know about farming comes from Luke’s experience growing with his grandfather. Part of it comes by way of YouTube videos and reading. “My grandpa had books out here going back into the 40s,” said Mines. The simple, old-school advice from those books have been some of the most useful. Another part of it comes from the farming community. Olivia said that their exchanges with other farmers are always helpful, exchanging tips and ideas. She mentioned Aqua Organics, whom they know from the market, as well as Eco Farm. “They are so giving! We barter – we give them flowers and they give us seeds,” she said.
A lot of their knowledge sprouts from good old-fashioned trial and error. They have been growing food for themselves for five or six years now. “Every season is different. You try to compare it to last year, but it doesn’t always work that way,” said Olivia.
Dragon fruit, orange and red turmeric, mint, and cranberry hibiscus – Happy’s Place was an herbaceous wonderland. We stepped into the shade house at the far end of the farm which Olivia’s grandfather built with his friends. “During the Spring all this –– tomatoes, eggplant, herbs –– we can grow out there in the garden. But right now, this is how we make due,” said Olivia. She pointed out a vanilla orchid in the shade house. She explained that they were a part of the Orchid Society for quite a while. She playfully teased Luke, calling him an “orchid nerd.”
Making our way to the barn, Luke stopped and kneeled down to show us a plant. “These are legumes,” he said. “Having enough well-growing legumes is equivalent to adding nitrogen to the soil. You’re doing it naturally. It’s another way to get around chemicals.”
Luke and Olivia care about the holistic wellbeing of their farm –– every plant, every chicken, every flower. They plan to be good stewards of the land, continuing to grow in a way that is environmentally and ecologically thoughtful. “The main goal is to turn this place into a huge food forest,” said Smith. “That’s what we want to do is produce really good, healthy food.”
Happy’s Place Farm