Above photo: Organic farmer and beekeeper Joey Versaggi inspects sprouting produce at his Elkton, Fla. farm.
Late afternoon sun stretches its warm fingers across a piece of farmland 15 miles east of St. Augustine. To most folks, the square patch of dirt tilled between fence posts doesn’t look like much. But from beneath the brim of his straw hat, Joey Versaggi looks out at the same stitch of land and sees potential — in both the land and in himself.
A St. Augustine native, Joey grew up in a community where his family’s legacy was woven into the fabric of the city’s history before he was born. Salvatore Versaggi, Joey’s great-grandfather, was one of St. Augustine’s early shrimping pioneers. Within a decade of his arrival in the United States from Sicily, Salvatore built a successful shrimping business that helped establish a thriving economy in St. Augustine.
After Salvatore’s death in 1925, his wife and sons kept the business alive, expanding it to the Gulf Coast. Manuel Versaggi, one of Salvatore’s five boys, continued the family business in Tampa where he also raised his own family, including Joey’s father, Michael. After college, Michael followed the family’s roots back to St. Augustine and started his own dental practice. Joey always assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and attend dental school. But as he neared the end of his undergraduate degree program at the University of Florida, he realized his heart wasn’t in dentistry.
Instead, he returned to St. Augustine after graduation and went to work at his aunt’s restaurant, Culinary Outfitters. Working in the kitchen, Joey traced the origins of the restaurant’s food supply and discovered a growing need for locally sourced produce. Back at his family’s farm, Joey sectioned off a piece of his parents’ land and found his passion in the soil.
“That first year it was all five-gallon buckets and shovel work,” Joey recalls with something short of fondness. “But I got a feel for what it was like to till the land myself.”
A small crop of lettuce, arugula, kale, collards and a few vegetables allowed Joey to jump start his business. With what he earned selling his crop to local restaurants, he expanded his tools to include a used tractor and a few beehives.
“Beekeeping and farming go hand in hand,” says Joey. He started with a few boxes and eventually built up to the 10 hives he has today. Some of his bee colonies are rescues that he and other members of the St. Augustine Bee Club have safely relocated from local homes and businesses.
In addition to the new tools, Joey also picked up some valuable knowledge with the successes and failures of each season.
“From day one, I’ve learned the hard way,” he acknowledges. “But with each year, I learn something new and I get a little better.”
Joey has also been fortunate enough to grow a strong support network around him including his parents, his fiancée, Katie, and her family, too. After a few years of trial and error on the small parcel on his family’s property, Joey decided to take a big leap in 2015. He quit his restaurant job and leased 2.8 acres down the road from the family farm.
Though his operation remains small in comparison to some of the bigger farms in the industry, the quality of his work is evident in Joey’s local clientele. Some of St. Augustine’s best eateries, including Catch 27, The Tasting Room, Ripe Bistro and Gypsy Cab, are supporters of this homegrown talent.
Growth doesn’t come without some pains, though. In addition to the long days and backbreaking labor, Joey has struggled, like many others in his line of work, to extend the shelf life of his produce after harvest, to find efficient irrigation methods in the harsh Florida climate, and to battle bugs who destroy portions of his crop without using pesticides.
Asked how he finds the patience to overcome the obstacles, Joey proves why he’s truly found his passion with a smile, a shoulder shrug and three little words: “It’s a lifestyle.”
Whatever paths Joey has taken or not taken, one thing is for sure: he is still in the family business. It may not be shrimping or family dentistry, but his work in the field certainly continues the Versaggi family legacies of hard work, passion and community.
“Knowing what my family achieved definitely makes me realize that anything is possible if you work hard and your intentions are good.”
And with his family’s past as his guideposts, Joey will keep tilling toward his future.
Organic farmer and beekeeper Joey Versaggi inspects sprouting lettuce.
Versaggi supplies many local restaurants with his lettuce and other produce.
Versaggi farm spans 2.8 acres of land.