EAST COUNTY — In 2006, a piece of paper held the fate of Dean and Janet Mixon’s family legacy.
Disease threatened Mixon’s Fruit Farm’s crops. Dean’s father, Bill, needed time to care for his ailing wife.
The economy had become sluggish.
And the couple had just assumed the family business, which Dean’s grandparents, Willie and Rosa, started in 1939. The couple had already sold 250 acres of the farm, and the developer wanted more — the last 50 acres.
With the land, the developer would bulldoze the Mixon legacy.
The Mixons had 30 days to decide.
“Everyone tired of the diseases and the regulations and the effort of trying to keep it going,” Janet Mixon said. “We thought maybe we could afford to retire. Or maybe Dean would become an electrician or plumber. I would go back to teaching. But we prayed about it and decided to survive. If we hadn’t, we would be one of those family farms that were gone.”
Mixon Fruit Farms, an East County orange grove and stand known for more than just oranges, is celebrating its 75th season this month.
When, in 1939, Willie and Rosa Mixon bought a 20-acre grove in Manatee County, they had the vision to make it a retail operation. Rosa Mixon and her six children loaded up a Ford truck with oranges and sold them to guests at the Dixie Grande Hotel in Bradenton.
Willie and Rosa Mixon started a fruit stand on the corner of 26th Avenue and 27th Street — dirt roads at the time. Customers rang a bell to call the family out of the grove.
Willie, who made his money working at Manatee Hammock Fruit Co., quit in 1941, when he decided to focus entirely on his own farm.
His son, Bill, bought a section of grove for himself in high school. He worked land for family and neighbors and eventually used earnings from his crops to pay for materials to build his own home. He and his childhood sweetheart, Mary, moved into the house shortly after the two were married in July 1949.
By the 1970s, the groves grew to their peak of 350 acres. The Mixons built a processing plant on the farm.
The Mixons demolished the original retail store and built a new one. By the 1980s, it sold ice cream and fudge.
And, in the best of times, in 1992, Mixon’s sold 250,000 packages of citrus gift boxes compared to about 30,000 annually today. At the time, the mail-order business, which Bill Mixon’s late wife, Mary, developed, represented the majority of the farm’s revenue.
Dean Mixon, known for carrying his black laptop case everywhere, even to church, does the accounting for the farm himself.
“When I fill out an insurance form and it asks when I began employment here, I list my date of birth,” Dean Mixon said.
The farm flourished and then faltered. To survive, change became inevitable.
After the U.S. began importing citrus in 1994, citrus canker infected the groves, causing brown lesions on the leaves, stems and fruit of the citrus trees. Leaves and fruit dropped prematurely. Citrus greening, a bacterial disease that attacks a tree’s vascular system and reduces production, became an ongoing challenge, as well.
Nearby farms — partners from whom the Mixons would buy jelly, lemon and other goods — closed.
“The only way we could survive was to make this a destination,” Janet Mixon said. “We wanted this to be a place where people can make memories. The rest of the family didn’t want to do anything different. But Dean and I like to try new things.”
Dean Mixon is a computer wizard who originally majored in math at what is now known as the University of Central Florida. Janet Mixon, who has her doctorate in education, is the “people person” — the voice of the farm who convinced the family, and the public, that tram tours through groves of oranges would be a popular venture.
Bringing an outsider perspective, Janet Mixon started festivals and tram tours at the farm. The Orange Blossom Festival started in 2008, and the Harvest Festival began in 2009.
She and Dean Mixon worked to make their groves a venue for concerts, weddings and other special occasions, installing a gazebo surrounded by colorful flowers, a koi pond, a banquet space and other amenities for patrons to use.
Bill Mixon, now 85, watches the change from his 5-year-old white house on the property. He lives here now, in the house with the loop-around driveway he built for his late wife.
Initially, he had resisted the transformation and growth of Mixon’s — when the signs said to stop investing — but, as the farm lives on, he trusts the “younger ones” to carry it forward.
He continues to work the land, planting trees in the groves.
“The soil is in him,” Janet Mixon said. “He is happiest when he’s out there on a tractor. He outworks everybody.”
Bill Mixon sticks to what he loves and leaves the evolution of the farm to his children.
“When you’re 85 years old, you don’t have much to worry about in the future,” Bill Mixon said. “I’m happy about the future.”
Dean and Janet agree.
“A family business is tough a thing to keep up,” Dean Mixon said. “We survived, and we won’t stop trying new things.”
Dean and Janet Mixon met in kindergarten and graduated high school together, but never were close friends.
“He was afraid of me,” Janet Mixon said. “We went to high school together. He was the smarty guy. I was the crazy cheerleader. He was captain of the marching band.”
He went to UCF, changed his major to botany, took some citrus courses on the side and returned to the farm he hasn’t left since. He married Wendy.
Janet Mixon became a teacher and lived in Charleston, S.C. She married Gerald.
The couple then were reunited by grief. In the early 2000s, Wendy and Gerald both became terminally ill. Dean and Janet Mixon connected and began exchanging prayer requests through email.
Wendy died in 2001. Gerald died in 2003. Dean and Janet Mixon later married.
“Our former classmates thought, ‘It can’t possibly be,’” Janet Mixon said. “But we’ve been married 10 years, so it’s been pretty good.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected]
GROVES TO A DESTINATION
1910 - Willie Mixon and his wife, Rosa, move to Manatee County
1939 - Willie and Rosa Mixon buy a 20-acre grove in Manatee County
1945 - Original Mixon store is torn down and a new facility is built in its place
1949 - Bill Mixon, the son of Willie and Rosa, and father of Dean, moves into a house on the property with his late wife, Mary; They live in the home 58 years.
1959 - The store is rebuilt again
1970s - Mixon’s grows to its peak of 350 acres
1972 - Processing plant is built
1979 - Dean Mixon, Willie and Rosa’s grandson, is named “Young Farmer of the Year,” by the Farm Bureau
1986 - Ice cream is sold inside the store
1989 - Fudge is sold inside the store
2006 - Dean and Janet Mixon take over the family business; they remodel the store again to give it the modern look it has today
2006 - Dean and Janet Mixon sell 250 acres
2006 - Tram tours begin
2008 - Orange Blossom Festival begins
2008 - Bill Mixon moves into his home on the farm
2009 - Harvest Festival begins
AT A GLANCE
Mixon’s sells 21 varieties of citrus.
In the best of times, in 1992, Mixon’s sold 250,000 packages of citrus gift boxes; Now, it sells 30,000 per year.
At its prime, in the height of the season in December, Mixon had more than 120 employees. Now, it has about 65 employees during peak season.
Two years ago, when the Pittsburgh Pirates were training at McKechnie Field, the team went through 120 gallons of orange juice per week.
The average price of shipping a bushel of oranges to New York when Mixon began its mail order business was $3.95.
The average price of shipping bushel of oranges to New York today is $85.