Scott Francis wasn’t born a farmer, but you might argue that he was born to be one.
He and his wife founded Twinn Bridges Herb Farm, named after the nearby crossings over the St. Marys and Little St. Marys River, more than a decade and a half ago. They met at the Times-Union, where he had worked for almost thirty years before deciding to become a fulltime farmer. He was an avid sailor and participated in many races on the St. Johns in the boat he had once called home.
Once their green thumb developed, the Francis’ sold the sailboat and searched far and wide for a plot of land to make stuff grow and get in touch with the land. Once they found Macclenny and the old plot of land worked by a farmer that had been in his family since his ancestors homesteaded there, they knew. “This looks like it,” Denise told her husband.
When the sale was finalized, the farmer had a bit of advice. Their original plans to grow tomatoes were all well and good, but they could be very labor intensive, requiring two pickings a day and daily trips to market. He had given it up himself in favor of the slow paced and luxurious schedule of growing herbs. He even guided them through the whole process and they were able to be in production a week after closing the deal.
A Farmer Never Sleeps
According to Scott, the farmer’s description of the time spent was a little off. Even growing just herbs was no small chore, requiring hours of labor and careful monitoring to produce quality goods. Even now that he’s got it down to a science, it is still far from luxurious. “I get to pick my own 80 hours a week to work,” Scott said. You can tell that he loves every moment of it though and it is not hard to see how proud he is of his operation. They have three covered grow houses, which allow the Francis’ to have an almost year-long growing season. In addition, a neighbor has lent them four acres that they plant with various greens.
They were between growing seasons, when the farm is normally at its least active state, but it was still a marvel of agriculture. They guided us along the pepper bushes with chili peppers and three different kinds of habanero peppers. Scott plucked a pepper here and there and shared that chocolate habaneros do not, in fact, taste like chocolate. The radishes were coming in next to the peppers, so many varieties that you have the ingredients for some delicious kimchi without taking more than a few steps in any direction.
The Rule of Three
Scott and Denise are good at what they do, but even they know they can’t force Mother Nature. All of their produce is made without any nasty chemicals or pesticides. They abide by the Rule of Three: Plant three times as much as you think you will need. One third will be munched by insects, another will wither to various diseases and the last third will be your take home. Combined with their strategy of micro farming, producing a wide variety of produce to offer at the farmers market or to their restaurant partners, they have come a long way from the monoculture cash crops that used to dominate the area.
The central grow house is dedicated entirely to herbs and it smelled like a well-stocked spice rack. Massive bushes of rosemary and cilantro lined the walls and blended their scents together with the aromas of lemon thyme, peppermint and tarragon. This was the magical spot that put the “Herb” in Twinn Bridges Herb Farm. From here, herbs are sent out to their closest restaurant partners like Orsay, Brick, Bistro Aix and Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails.
Fuel for Thought
In return, those restaurants provide them with gallon upon gallon of used cooking oil. They vary in shade from a light caramel to a dark brown. Scott got together with a local engineering friend and set up a system behind his grow house that processes and refines the used cooking oil over a four-day period into high-quality diesel fuel. A banana spider strung a massive web overhead the various machinery and its tangled webs looked quite a bit simpler than the system that Scott and his friend had taken a year to dream up. They make enough gas to run their rehabilitated tractor and old delivery van at under a dollar a gallon and if he had the time to run it daily he could process a batch a day. By now, they have driven over 100,000 miles on nothing but his homemade bio-diesel!
This refining process does have one byproduct; an excess of glycerin. Scott and Denise had a clean answer for that, make it into their own soap! They started sending bars of handmade soap to the Beaches Green Market in Neptune Beach where they can be found every Saturday, but what they really want to do is reintroduce it into the restaurants that are providing all of the used cooking oil. Scott is currently working with Chef Tom Gray of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails to make foaming liquid hand soap that would be perfect for the restaurant environment, creating a full circle of use that benefits everyone.
A Passion and Purpose
Scott and Denise Francis have helped pioneer the local food movement in Jacksonville by bringing the best and freshest produce to some of the most innovative chefs in the area. Farming has always been known as a slow-paced lifestyle, but the folks at Twinn Bridges are always looking ahead to new ways to bring the highest quality produce with the smallest ecological footprint. What they do is hard work and requires constant effort, but it is easy to see how proud they are of how they’ve transformed a part-time hobby into a fulltime lifestyle.
Twinn Bridges Farm
The Beaches Green Market Jarboe Park, Neptune Beach