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Selling the Farm

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  • | 6:00 p.m. April 1, 2005
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Selling the Farm

By Christine Suh

Contributing Writer

Mixon Fruit Farms' rows of citrus trees that border 27th Street East have survived hurricanes and freezes, but they're suffering in a battle against a more insidious enemy: disease.

Dean Mixon, general manager, says the 66-year-old farm is not going out of business. Its store and packinghouse operation will continue. But the constant threat of canker, a bacterial disease that has destroyed 25 acres on the farm, and another disease fatal to their trees is an overwhelming burden.

"It's so sad to look out there," Mixon said. "The groves are looking thin. They used to be green, lush."

That, in combination with other factors and an offer too good to refuse, has led the Mixon family to decide to sell most of their land to a developer.

Under contract are 280 acres between 15th and 27th streets east. The developer is asking Bradenton to annex the land, which could bring in $28.5 million in property taxes over the next 20 years, according to an economic consultant's report.

The developer, Metro Development Group, plans about 1,400 homes, priced between $250,000 and $350,000.

The Bradenton City Council passed the first reading of the project last week but didn't set a date for final review. A number of infrastructure issues must be resolved.

The farm's roots

Mixon's grandfather, Willie, worked as a caretaker for the land before buying the farmland. But before long, the Mixon family started their own operation. Mixon's grandmother, Rosa, decided to start the cannery to ship their products to loyal winter customers who migrated North as the heat settled in.

The farm has been a successful venture since then. It became one of the largest gift fruit businesses in Florida with tens of thousands of customers in 49 states, Canada and Europe.

It survived a hurricane in 1944 that uprooted 800 of the farm's trees. Freezes in 1952 and 1962 ravaged the crops, but the farm persisted. But in 2000, the Mixons had to clear 25 acres of trees because of citrus canker.

In addition, the citrus tristeza virus has spread throughout the state. On the Mixon farm, it has killed more than 15,000 mature trees. Replacing those trees takes at least five years.

In fact, Mixon said, the farm has been buying fruit from other producers because it's cheaper.

The farm's best days were in the 1990s, Mixon said. Since then, it seems as though most people are on the run and don't have time to peel fruit.

"In the entire industry, sales of citrus have gone down," he said.

Mixon recalls a time when the farm sold as many fruit in a day as it now sells in a week.

It's also more difficult now to live as an agricultural neighbor surrounded closely by subdivisions. The Mixons have pushed their spraying activities to the evenings because nearby residents and drivers-by have complained.

With development booming and farming becoming more difficult, it was almost inevitable the Mixons would sell. The growth explosion leap-frogged the farm for agricultural land east of Interstate 75. But as that land grows saturated, developers looked westward again.

"They're rediscovering this area west of I-75," Mixon said.

The farm's evolution

Although 280 acres may go to development across 27th Street East, Mixon said the family is holding on to 40 to 50 acres on the east side. The plan is to expand marketing and services for the store.

"Some people drive by and think we're a warehouse," Mixon said.

But inside the store, customers can purchase ice cream, fudge, Florida gifts, including T-shirts and hats, and, of course, fresh orange juice. The Mixons also have a deli.

The family also hopes to maintain their grove that they use for public tours. Just about every school has visited the farm on field trips, Mixon said.

"That's what our focus will be in the future: kids and adult education," he said. Farms are quickly disappearing not only from the land but also from the understanding of urbanites. The Mixon farm will remain, although in a diminutive version of its former self, as an educational destination as well as a tourist attraction.

To raise its profile, the Mixons are reaching out to the community. They host an Orange Blossom Festival at the end of winter to show off the fragrant citrus flowers. They recently held an all-day blood drive event.

The farm may receive broader attention than from just within the community. The Travel Channel has interviewed and filmed at the farm, Mixon said, for a program on destinations along Florida's West Coast. The program is scheduled to air this summer.

Mixon said he likes change and is excited for the challenge of transforming the farm to meet the demands of the times. At the same time, the farm will always remember its roots.

"We're still trying to keep the citrus mindset," Mixon said.


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