Northeast Florida rice farm off to a rockin’ start


Although Congaree and Penn has been operational for only about three years, the farm has become a thriving farm of orchards, rice paddies and animals here in Jacksonville. It’s the only farm that grows rice in Northeast Florida, cultivating a variety: Jupiter brown rice, white rice, middlins (broken white rice), Jupiter grits, purple grits and fish fry. The key difference between each kind of rice is in the milling process.

The 220-acre farm includes about four-and-a-half acres of rice fields, a vineyard of muscadine grapes and tons of all kinds of crops.

“We started at the front, just doing the rice fields and the muscadine vines, but we’ve slowly added on more and more things,” said head farmer Scott Meyer.

Congaree and Penn has many plans for new crops, such as olive trees, Mayhaw trees (at 60 to 100 acres, its orchard is the world’s largest), strawberries, blackberries, plums, peaches, persimmons, pears, pomegranates, mulberries and figs.

In April, they planted 12,000 olive trees. They plan to make olive oil after the trees come into full production some time next year.

A mayhaw is a crabapple from a hawthorn tree. The fruit itself is only about an inch in diameter. It’s thin-skinned and its red color is similar to an apple’s. Meyer says the taste is “really tart and super-acidic.” He added that the mayhaws make good jam, which is the primary reason for its cultivation at the farm.

“I could safely say I’ve grafted more Mayhaw trees than anyone in the world this year, which is about 1,300 trees,” said Meyer.

Congaree and Penn also make farm-pressed juices that they call shrubs. As of now, the shrubs are available in four flavors: blackberry blood orange, red sun peach, blueberry Meyers lemon and strawberry key lime.

They also have eight hives of honeybees. Meyer says he hopes that the spring rain will help grow the bee population, explaining that it takes a lot of water to make enough nectar for bees to make honey.

Their plans for the future are nothing short of ambitious.

“We’ll probably be doubling our acting acreage in 2017 from about 25 to 30 acres to about 50 to 60 acres by the end of the year,” Meyer said.

The land was previously owned by his father, who gave it to Meyer and his wife Lindsay, saying ‘Let’s start something here.’

Meyer, whose background is in aquaculture, says he and his dad have a lot of experience growing trees; they started growing rice as an experiment.

“They said, ‘I think rice would grow really well here,’ and I thought they were crazy, but it seems to have worked out,” said Lindsay.

Enticed by the freshness and flavor of the products, some local restaurants have started serving dishes created with Congaree and Penn’s wares.

The farm team is also working on pecan oil, which some of these restaurants have already ordered.

“We’re pretty much milling the oil and it comes out looking horrible … it’s just this brown goop. Then you let gravity do its job and when it settles out, you get about an 80 percent yield of really nice, beautiful oil and 20 percent of sludge that’s good for compost,” Meyer explained.

Congaree and Penn is pursuing an ambitious and unique business model at the farm.

“What sets us apart, really, is the fact that we’re not only growing a variety of crops, but we’re doing a lot of processing and packaging,” Meyer explained. “We’re actually both a farm and a food manufacturer right here in Northeast Florida.”

For them, the farm is more than a business or a calling; it’s home.

In May, the couple, who met in college, moved into a house on the property that they had been fixing up.

“We’ve been doing this for three years,” Lindsay said. “So, it’s been different for us to be here and not have to drive 30 minutes.”

Lindsay, whose background is in graphic design, works on the design, communication and event-planning portion of the family-operated business. She also takes care of their many animals, which includes two giant dogs: Cholula, a Great Dane and Seabiscuit, an Irish wolfhound. They also have eight chickens. Lindsay grew up on a farm, so living with a menagerie feels normal for her.

“I think that having the privilege to live on a farm and grow up on a farm is awesome,” Lindsay said. “It’s not something weird for me. I enjoy it.”

They’ve talked about expanding their livestock population with more birds, goats, horses, cattle and pigs, but for the moment they’re content to focus on settling into their new home, taking care of the animals and harvesting the next crop of rice.

“That’s what I call down-the-road stuff,” said Meyer. “So I try not to think too much about it, but there are a lot of cool things that can be done here, for sure.”

Restaurants serving Congaree and Penn products include Taverna, Black Sheep, Biscottis, North Beach Fish Camp, Bellwether, Mezza Restaurant & Bar and Restaurant Doro.

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