On a plot of land twelve miles from downtown Jacksonville, Florida, Scott Meyer is taking urban farming to the next level.
congaree and penn rice farm
Credit: Courtesy of Kristen Penoyer

On a farm of modest acreage, along a semi-rural stretch of the Old Kings Road not far from the heart of Jacksonville, Florida, Scott Meyer is milling rice and thinking about his future.

Like the rest of us, he's not entirely sure how it will play out—he does, however, have some ideas. Congaree and Penn, his boutique operation here on the exurban fringe of one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, is the smallest rice farm and mill in the United States.

For most people, that would probably be enough of an achievement. For Meyer, 30, it's just a jumping off point. The farm is also home to what will eventually become of the largest production groves in the world of the Mayhaw tree, fixture in the wilds of the region, bearing a tart, brighter-than-a-cranberry berry with a sweet, grape finish that's often turned into jelly.

Then there are the olive trees he's planting, which he will, in a couple of years time, begin to harness for the production of a top tier olive oil, something you don't typically expect to find in Florida. He's got muscadine grapes, too—the first harvest has just gone into an estate-grown shrub, using Florida cane sugar and apple cider vinegar. Oh, and don't forget the Creole tomato jelly that they've just made.

"We're really trying to see what takes," says Meyer. "We said, let's try some different stuff, let's make it the best we can make it, let's see what people really like."

What they like, apparently, is everything. Each new experiment can't seem to avoid becoming a hit. Meyer is just back from the annual Feast food festival in Portland, Ore., where he showcased his new pecan oil—this whole other thing that he's doing—made from good, Georgia pecans that he's milled and cold-pressed, right on property.

Originally, this was all going to be a fish farm.

Meyer, who studied environmental science at Texas Christian University—that's where he met wife Lindsay, a key player in the operation here—before heading out to the Wyoming wilds where he worked as a field biologist ("I spent a lot of time in the wilderness in a cabin, by myself"), eventually ended up at the University of Miami's Experimental Fish Hatchery. It was here, he began thinking about sustainable fish farming.

On this plot of land near Jacksonville, his father had previously owned a landscape tree nursery—post-recession, the steep decline in development around the region presented an opportunity. The rice was only supposed to be temporary, experimental—the paddies would end up as settling ponds, for waste from the fish production; the rice would become sake.

"Chefs around here had a different idea," says Meyer. "They found out I was growing rice, and that they could mill it to order. We said—we have bills to pay; let's not hoard it and try to figure out how to make sake, let's sell it."

"We grew the business for two years based on one chef or another trying it, it was all word of mouth," Meyer recalls. ""The quality spoke for itself."

Suffice to say, Congaree and Penn's rice (and rice-related product) has become a staple in better kitchens in the region, over the past few years, as well as a hit at area farmers markets—it's now the farm's bread and butter. Meyer has become a sort of traveling evangelist for the brand, milling fresh rice each week, then hopping in the car and driving to Orlando and Tampa and elsewhere, to introduce his product to new chefs.

He's now getting calls from around the country, too—notably from 2016 Food & Wine Best New Chef Edouardo Jordan, whose inventive new Southern restaurant in Seattle, Junebaby, has once again put him in the spotlight. Jordan found the farm on social media, asking for the rawest rice they could get to him. They took the farm's Jupiter rice, ran it through the huller, leaving the slightly greener grains in with the batch, and sent it over. (It was a hit.)

Demand for the rice has now outgrown the original paddies—Meyer had to enlist a cousin in Louisiana, who has a 19-acre farm over there, in order to increase production capability. He still mills everything right on premises though.

It's not only the rice that's become a hit; the farm, which Meyer eagerly uses as a teaching tool, has become something of a fixture on Jacksonville's local food scene—there are family fun days, there's a fish fry, a holiday market, coming up; the farm has also become a popular stop, quite understandably, on the region's bi-annual Tour de Farm, an open house, go-to-the-source event sponsored by the local Slow Food chapter.

So much for that idea of the small, sustainable fish farm.

"That's still my dream," Meyer confesses. "But I'm very happy that other people are willing to take my rice; people are doing great things with it."

At least one part of the original plan has come to fruition, sort of—a local distillery, it turns out, has taken the rice and is now making sake.