Charles Leonard knows how important access to health care is for North Carolinians—and especially for those living in rural communities.
“That’s one of the reasons we moved here,” he says from the 1842 farmhouse that he and his wife, Pam, own in Davidson County. It’s even more important to Charles, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in the spring of 2018.
“If I didn’t have health-care insurance, I would not be in the position I’m in now,” he says. Charles is in the sixth month of a two-year clinical drug trial at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to treat his illness. “I fortunately have Medicare and we can afford Blue Cross coverage,” he explains, “but had I not had insurance, I would not have gone to the doctor, I wouldn’t have been diagnosed, I wouldn’t be part of this trial.”
And he knows others in rural North Carolina aren’t as fortunate.
“Davidson County has sufficient population density, as a bedroom community for Greensboro and Winston-Salem, where they’re not closing the hospitals like they are down east.” But even though medical care is geographically accessible, it is not always financially so.
Charles has seen that firsthand on Gentle Harmony Farm, the three-and-a-half-acre herb farm he and Pam have owned and run since 2008. He’s lost a couple of good employees over the years because they couldn’t afford health insurance and the Leonards weren’t able to offer it to them.
One young man took a job at McDonald’s to get coverage. And a current employee, who works part-time at the farm during her summers off as a teacher, will lose coverage this year when she leaves the classroom. “I don’t know what she’ll do when her coverage lapses,” he says, his concern for her wellbeing evident in his voice. “She’s gonna wing it, which is not good.”
Charles is joining other North Carolina farmers to urge state lawmakers to close the health-insurance coverage gap, which would allow his workers to afford insurance. “Affordable, accessible health care is vital to local economies. It’s vital. Without it, people move away, you lose talent base.”
The Leonards didn’t set out to become farmers.
In 2008, the couple was living in Atlanta, where Charles was a graphic design professor and Pam was the executive director of a university’s restorative justice program. They wanted to retire and leave the big city life. A family tie led them to the North Carolina Piedmont and, specifically, the farmhouse in Davidson County. “We decided we’d come up here and look at it.”
They fell in love with the home, bought the property, and thought they’d mainly use it as a place for long weekends and family gatherings. A year later, they were growing cover crops. Pam had studied herbalism, and the Leonards thought they might want to start and organic herb farm. By 2012, the farm was certified organic and the couple had moved to the property full-time. “We started with many, many, many different herbs,” Charles says. “We’ve narrowed it down.”
Now, they grow two annuals and a group of perennials—everything from dandelion and lemon balm to motherwort and echinacea. They planted 4,000 herbs this year. Charles mans the walk-behind tractor—taking apart the gear box to make repairs when it breaks down. “It’s good for me to do that,” he says.
But since his Parkinson’s diagnosis, “the heavy work is now falling on the younger people,” including the Leonards’ daughter and a few seasonal employees. “It’s a lot of hand work, a lot of weeding,” he says.
Charles cares for those employees, and he wants to ensure they have the same access to health care that he does.
“We’re very fortunate,” he says. “We know that.”