Leap of faith

The Lord's Farm and Nursery in Highlands County has a thought-provoking name. Owners Steve and Ellie Aumonte told the story of how it came to be.

"It was the end of 2001 when we moved to Lake Placid from Coral Springs," said Steve. "It was right after the attack on the country, and people were kind of nervous and scared." But the Aumontes felt they were motivated by a higher power to move from metropolitan Dade County to quiet, rural Lake Placid, regardless of the mayhem and uncertainty that surrounded them.

Steve, who was born in New York but grew up in South Florida, worked as director of operations for a homeowners association in a country club environment. Ellie, who immigrated to the U.S. from Brazil at the age of 29, cleaned houses. But Steve also called himself a "street preacher," and after exploring religion and Christianity felt drawn to leave behind their former lifestyle and live off the land.

After much planning and saving, the Aumontes found a piece of property they could afford, and it happened to be in Lake Placid. With no knowledge of growing food at all, the young couple with two small children started their farm.

"We planted vegetables and fruit from seed from Home Depot. We purchased soil from a local supplier. We purchased some chickens. We thought, 'we're gonna have chickens and vegetables,'" Steve recalled. They also had a little boat they thought they'd use.

But things didn't go exactly as planned. "The boat rotted. The vegetables never grew. The chickens killed each other," he went on with a wry grin as his wife laughed in the background.

So the couple started looking into growing landscape plants. Steve would help out a friend who had a lawn mowing business, and the friend would let him take all the cuttings that would normally be thrown away. Little by little the Aumontes learned to propagate plants. But there was no money at first, so Ellie had to travel back and forth to Dade County every week, cleaning houses during the week to pay the bills, then helping her husband grow the fledgling business on the weekends.

But the Aumontes had faith, and before long had developed a strictly commercial nursery. "We sold smaller plants and supplied bigger, more established nurseries first. With our quality and price, we attracted the attention of larger companies," Steve stated.

Then another obstacle presented itself in their path. The economy crashed and commercial business dried up. Their Lake Placid location was not convenient for a retail location, plus they lived on the property, so the Aumontes decided to take yet another leap of faith. While the real estate market was in a tailspin and prices were low, they chose again not to succumb to fear and uncertainty, and in the summer of 2009 purchased a piece of property on U.S. 27 in south Sebring to open their retail location.

Now through faith, determination and learning through, as Steve put it, "the school of hard knocks" the Aumontes now own nine acres in Lake Placid, two acres in Sebring and a third location in Orlando spanning just over two acres.

As for the name, the self-proclaimed street preacher said he wanted to acknowledge that everything comes from the Lord. Plus, the name reminds the Aumontes to always run their business in a way that would be pleasing to the man upstairs. To Steve that means trying to produce the best product, giving it to people at the best price, helping his employees any way he can and providing as many jobs as possible.

The Aumontes also make it a priority to always have one parent home with their three children, Christopher, 14, Victoria, 12 and Julianna, 9, when they come home from school.

It wasn't an easy road to get where he is today, but Steve said he enjoys the constant learning, experimenting with improving plants and seeing his customers go home happy with their purchases.

"I know why the Lord doesn't tell you all the details, because you probably wouldn't go," he laughed, adding "You have to follow step one and wait for instructions."