To keep their Mixon Fruit Farms thriving, Dean and Janet Mixon dipped into unfamiliar territory over the last 16 years, such as hosting weddings, creating a wildlife viewing area, growing bamboo and being a producer of broghies.
At this point, it just wasn't enough.
The Mixons said their business, which started in 1939 at its current home at 2525 27th St. E., Bradenton, is likely to close in 2024.
They sent out a press release Oct. 20 announcing their intentions to consider the many offers they have to buy their property.
"This is so hard," Janet Mixon said from their farm on Oct. 24. "Anyone who knows farmers knows they love their land."
She said her husband never gave much thought to selling the property, but a stream of negative factors affecting agriculture has changed his thinking.
In their release, Dean Mixon said the North American Free Trade Agreement, that came into effect in 1994, created an environment that allowed the citrus diseases now plaguing Florida to enter the U.S. He said COVID-19 created hiring and staffing issues, and Hurricane Ian just "knocked off half the fruit" from the farm's trees.
The Mixons emphasized they have no standing offer on the property and they aren't likely to reach any agreement until they find out what can be built on their land. Janet Mixon believes most of the builders who have made offers are interested in building residential communities.
She also said that anyone who books a wedding with Mixon's Fruit Farms through 2023 should be assured that no changes will be made until 2024 at the earliest.
At its height, the Mixon farms, owned by Bill Mixon and his sons, Dean and Don Mixon, included about 350 acres and the market for produce. Janet Mixon said they all had expertise in different areas — Bill was great at researching agricultural concepts, Don oversaw the actual work on the land with the crews, and Dean was a "computer genius" — and that made them an effective force.
However, the citrus tristeza virus hit the Mixon's crops hard in the early 2000s and ultimately convinced Bill and Don Mixon to sell their portions of the land — about 250 acres — in 2006.
That caused Dean Mixon to do some serious thinking at the time. He and Janet had married in 2003, and they "prayed" about whether to continue the farm and market.
The courtship of Dean and Janet was interesting after both their spouses had died of cancer a few years before.
Dean's previous wife, Wendy, had been with him since they were in ninth grade at Manatee High, while Dean and Janet knew each other as fellow students since they attended Manatee Elementary as kindergartners, eventually both graduating from Manatee High in 1969.
Janet eventually married Gerald Bennett and was enjoying life in Charleston, South Carolina.
After Wendy Mixon died, Dean Mixon heard that Janet was going through the same kind of ordeal with her husband. Dean began to send her possible cancer treatments for her husband. After Gerald Bennett's death, they struck up a relationship when their daughters — Lori Mixon and Julie Bennett — both ended up playing volleyball at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina.
One of the problems, though, was distance. Janet didn't want to move from Charleston because she loved the Seacoast Church she attended. As fate would have it, she said a member of that church established a new church in Bradenton that became Bayside Community Church. Janet moved back to Bradenton.
"My whole family lives here, so I knew I would be coming back," Janet Mixon said. "Dean said 'I think God wanted us to get married.'"
After their wedding at the Las Vegas' Chapel of Love, which doubled as a Howard Johnson's, the couple began to concentrate on the farm.
"I am a big memory maker," Janet Mixon said. "I wanted the farm to go on."
They made Mixon Fruit Farms into a wedding venue to attract new business. They added a children's playground, and had to add astroturf in 2015 because all the kids were playing in the mud. They built a pond to enhance the grounds. In 2008, they added animals and a tram tour with Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center's Damen Hurd overlooking the operation.
Their farm currently is down to about 40 acres. Besides the oranges and grapefruit, bamboo takes up about 10 acres. It was supposed to be a boost to the farm with the citrus industry suffering from greening.
"We began it six years ago," Janet Mixon said of the bamboo. "But it hasn't been what they said. "We were supposed to make about $30,000 an acre. Last year it was $2,000. We are taking care of it, but we aren't making any money."
In 2021, the Mixons began producing broghies, a disc-shaped, low calorie, fat free bread substitute made by taking corn or wheat pellets and putting them under enormous pressure and heat. Interestingly, the Mixons are considering an expansion of their broghie business, if they do have to sell Mixon Fruit Farms, to help some of their "20-some" employees keep jobs.
But they also are facing time.
"We are both in our 70s," Janet Mixon said. "Dean does everything around here, and he loves going out there. Last summer, Dean put in all the irrigation for the bamboo."
Finally, Hurricane Ian hit Florida.
"It already was hard getting citrus last year with all the farms going out of business," she said. "And this time, the hurricane knocked out farmers we have been doing business with. The hurricane beat us to death."
On top of the other hardships, Janet Mixon's younger brother, Don Sandhoff, died in a helicopter crash June 22 in West Virginia.
"Nobody wants to lose their business," Janet Mixon said. "Selling a famr is awful when you feel you have done everything possible to make things work."
Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.