Congaree and Penn: The History Behind A Rice Farm in Jacksonville

Scott Meyer operates the nation’s smallest rice farm. It’s the only one in Jacksonville and operates as an event space, distillery and functioning farm.

Rice Farming in Jacksonville

Rice farming was once a large industry in Northeast Florida, and Meyer is bringing it back using old-fashioned techniques while also experimenting with modern technological innovations. He planted four acres of rice paddies on his 160-acre farm, Congaree and Penn, located in a rural area on Jacksonville’s Northside on Old King’s Road. In the late summer of his first harvest, he and a team of workers hand-harvested 6,000 pounds of Jupiter rice, a medium grain rice that he sold to several First Coast restaurants.

Every season, Meyer plans to plant a new crop, and intends to experiment with new varieties, including purple, black and red rice. The success of his first harvest far exceeded his expectations, so he’s excited about the possibilities. “I enjoy coming up with creative ways of using the land,” he says. “The demand is there to support a small rice farm in Jacksonville, because restaurants and consumers are starting to care more about where their products are coming from,” and they like local.

History behind Congaree and Penn

Meyer began rice farming after graduating from college with a master’s degree in aquaculture, the science of fish farming. Discouraged by the high energy costs of water filtration used in standard aquaculture, he decided to use rice paddies as filters – an ancient agricultural process. He planted rice to see how well it would grow on the farm, with the intention of brewing sake. While eventually that will be a goal, he decided for now to sell the rice as a crop. Crawfish that he planted in the paddies turn over the soil, and disperse nutrients, but it will take a few years to establish a population, and there are no plans to farm them.

Meyer’s rice farm is unusual because to be commercially viable, he says rice farms traditionally need thousands of acres. North Florida and South Georgia used to be a huge rice farming region, back in the 1600s and 1700s, but the crop on a large scale is labor intensive. It declined in popularity and then disappeared altogether.

Calling himself an “old fashioned farmer,” Meyer says he enjoys doing everything himself, experimenting as he goes along, and “taking one thing at a time.” He likes to go in a different direction from what’s trending, he says, for example “doing brandy when everyone else is doing bourbon.” He even mills his own rice. He begins the process by using a foot powered rice thresher that he bought from an Amish farmer in Tallahassee. After bagging it on the farm, and drying it, he mills it at his home in Ortega.

Area restaurants such as 29 South, Prati Italia, Black Sheep and Orsay use Meyer’s rice in creative ways for Southern entrees, O’Hoyt says. Depending on how it is milled, or polished, the farm produces brown and white rice, as well as cracked rice (known as middlins), rice grits and rice flour. So far, “it’s been a lot of work, but I love it,” says Meyer, who often brings his dog to work with him. Cholula, his Great Dane, and Louis, an English Lab owned by O’Hoyt, are his CEO’s, he says, “chief experience officers.”

“I like that the farm is small scale and personal,” Meyer says. “You can’t beat it because you’re outside, and building something.”

What's Next?

Meyer doesn’t plan to stop with rice, however. He will plant other crops, using “small scale stacked agriculture” techniques that have been used world-wide for thousands of years. After his successes with rice paddies, Meyer began planting Muscadine grapes and Mayhaw trees. With both crops, he brews and distills mead, brandy and hard cider. Bee hives, which are set up around the orchard, will aid pollination, and the honey will be used to sweeten the cider. Mayhaw trees, native to the area, produce small red seeded fruits. Traditionally, they have been used to make jelly, “but nobody is making hard cider from Mayhaw berries – yet,” Meyer says. He’s been home brewing it, and says it’s “tart, crisp, and very good.”

“It’s perfect when you add honey to it,” his farming and sales representative, Amy O’Hoyt, says.

Meyer built a distillery at the front of the property, which his father owns, and which at one time was a Live Oak nursery. The land is naturally low, the soil rich in clay, and the majority of water inflow into the rice paddies comes from rain water. The Little Trout River runs through the farm, providing a natural source of outflow. A well is available for intermittent irrigation during dry periods.

Their land isn’t just used to grow. A spike in agrotourism has opened the grounds to table dinners, grape picking, private events and even an opportunity to see the goats. To see a full list of regular events, check out the Congaree and Penn website.

Written by: Maggie FitzRoy | Photography by Craig O’Neal

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