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Urban farming takes root in New Port Richey front yards

Jim Kovaleski, 55, a self-proclaimed urban farmer, harvests fresh produce from his mother’s front yard recently in New Port Richey.
Jim Kovaleski, 55, a self-proclaimed urban farmer, harvests fresh produce from his mother’s front yard recently in New Port Richey.
Published Mar. 26, 2017

NEW PORT RICHEY -- "That's Broccoli George's. He started his in 2010," Jim Kovaleski says, walking by 5649 Virginia Ave.

At 5705 Virginia: "This one has only been here a year. It's my ex-wife's house," he said. When he leaves in May, he plants a cover crop of black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes, and "when I come home in October, sometimes I come back to 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes."

In broad daylight and right in the front yard, something is happening in New Port Richey. The New Urbanism movement has taken hold and urban agriculture is flourishing.

Kovaleski thinks it's because New Port Richey has cheap land, low taxes, free compost, an urban agriculture ordinance and a free-to-vendors, year-round farmers market — a formula he thinks is perfect for attracting the growing number of people interested in urban farming.

On the other hand, it could be just because of Jim Kovaleski.

• • •

With a wrist full of rubber bands to corral bunches of chard and kale, Kovaleski, 55, is a study in economy of motion. He's been doing this before sunup Tuesday mornings for the past five years, readying the bounty from three front yards on Virginia Avenue for the Tasty Tuesdays market outside the New Port Richey Public Library.

Filled coolers slide in the bed of his ancient Ford, wire racks snug alongside, with a last-minute bouquet of irises and amaryllis to pretty up his booth.

"I bought this house for $33,000 in 1999. Taxes are $290, the water bill is $35, electric can run around $25. We called it Freedom House."

He's here from October to May. The rest of the year he camps out in sight of the ocean in Maine. On land he doesn't own and doesn't even rent, he mows 7 acres for the landowners with a Grim-Reaper-style hand scythe and grows a half- acre of squash, garlic and other veggies. He studied ornamental landscaping and then got interested in permaculture.

The front yards he tends in Florida are planted in lovely swooping rows of lettuces fronting taller clusters of Chinese broccoli and frilly topped carrots, green garlic and hakurei turnips, which Kovaleski calls snow apples and eats as such. He climbs ladders to harvest ripe star fruit and mulberries, and is probably the first farmer in Florida to grow wasabi arugula.

At least 10 times a day a car or tour bus slows and rubberneckers take in the beauty of what has come to be known as the Garden District.

These veggies are anomalous, with most municipalities expressly prohibiting front-yard vegetable gardening, limiting non-ground-cover plantings to trees and shrubs, flowers and ornamental garden accessories. In St. Petersburg, homeowners are in violation of code if grass is taller than 10 inches.

"It's about people's perception of beauty," says Kovaleski. "I see beauty in abundance. A $4 bag of lettuce feels more valuable (than other kinds of landscaping)."

He made $20 that first Tasty Tuesdays market five years ago with his Freedom House Farm. These days, Kovaleski makes his living from what he farms and his pocket sometimes bulges with $500 in small bills. He credits assistant library director Ann Scott with the success of the market.

• • •

The New Port Richey Public Library is the first in Florida to house a seed library, debuted in 2014. Librarians catalog the seeds and provide literature for people to grow plants effectively, with thousands of seeds in circulation at any time.

"We encourage people to bring back seeds, but there's no late fee if they don't."

That's a little librarian humor from Ann Scott. She says that, in a way, libraries are returning to their roots as community gathering places. It's not just books. Her impetus to start a market grew out of demographic data.

"New Port Richey had higher rates of obesity, so we developed a wellness literacy program with yoga and a teens food program called Bon AppéTeens. Jim was talking about doing a market, so I said okay, bring your stuff. It has become a forum for people in the community to talk, and we've added seminars and extension classes."

With the market, she had to cultivate the support of the City Council, but she says that New Port Richey's embrace of "green" practices is a reflection of the community's renegade spirit and "beneath-the-radar approach." In fact, the city's Environmental Committee is working on a project to get green certification for the city. The mastermind behind that, she says, is Dell deChant.

• • •

Dell deChant chairs the University of South Florida's department of religious studies. His research in the past decade has touched on agrarianism, food studies and ecology. He lives in New Port Richey and was on the City Council more than 20 years ago when they enacted a progressive tree ordinance and a free yard-debris collection and mulch program.

"The mulch program did two things: It was environmentally responsible and it diverted all this stuff from the waste stream. We had a community garden ordinance more than 20 years ago, before most communities even had community gardens," deChant said by phone.

There's a perception of west Pasco County, he said, that it's behind the times, and that New Port Richey is a down-at-the-heels retirement community.

"The two New Port Richey ZIP codes are designated by the USDA as low-income, low-access," he said, "But we've got a mix of people. What's so cool about this is what seems like a detrimental demographic, when properly engaged, is amenable to projects like this. Properly presented, I'm convinced these things can make a difference."

To gain approval from the City Council last June for the urban agriculture ordinance allowing sales of produce from residential gardens (it's not just about growing this stuff, it's about figuring out ways to effectively distribute it), deChant and Kovaleski showed photos illustrating how residential gardens can transform a piece of property. They cited studies that show community gardens increase property values. The ordinance passed.

• • •

"Why New Port Richey? Because individuals like Dell deChant have been beating the drum for years with the City Council. That's what brought Jim Kovaleski to town."

That's Frank Starkey, a devotee of New Urbanism and developer of the 500-acre Longleaf community at the border of New Port Richey and Trinity. He grew up in New Port Richey and says that while it hasn't captured the attention of large-scale developers, it's among the cities his company, People Places, is interested in.

"My goal was to find those towns that had good urban bones, good interconnected street grids and traditional building stock. Also the towns that had leadership that understood what they had. This led me to projects in three different places in Florida: here, downtown Winter Garden and Wilton Manors, which is surrounded on two sides by Fort Lauderdale."

While he says New Port Richey has been in economic decline for a long time, there has been an influx of millennials and "a whole cadre of people committed to making it a cool place." About a year ago he started Talk About Town, regular meetings open to the public and initially focused on urban design.

"The goal was to arm the citizenry with better knowledge about urban design. We've expanded the topics to include urban agriculture and economic development. We wanted to get it outside the realm of government, to start conversations in the community and to impart specialized knowledge."

Starkey, fascinated that these changes are happening so organically (both literally and figuratively, he says), said his aim is to help with, and capitalize on, the city's renaissance.

"If you took any other block of urban Florida you would not see as much going on," said deChant. "From the urban farms to the community gardens, the farmers markets and the seed bank. It's remarkable and aspirational, but built on a foundation of hard work."

The Tasty Tuesdays market winds down and Kovaleski gathers his leftover kale and collard bundles and sells them all half-price to fellow market vendor Kari Shattles-de Laaf, who will dehydrate them, make them into tasty chips with garlic and cayenne, and bring them back next week to sell — harvested, retailed and wholesaled on the same day and within walking distance. Another vendor divvies up her leftover sunflowers, ceremoniously presenting fellow vendors with one cheery, fat flower.

They're sowing the seeds of change together.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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