Bradenton’s Iconic Mixon Fruit Farms Shuts Doors After 84 Years
by PAUL CATALA
photos provided by MIXON FRUIT FARMS
It all started in 1939 as a small fruit stand on the edge of Willie and Rosa Mixon’s property in Bradenton. Twenty years later, the pair expanded the business, taking in land that was under individual ownership under one deed. That same year, the Mixons built the first wooden building in which they stored farm and office equipment.
Over the decades, the grove and fruit stand grew to include a market, restaurant, play park, and wildlife tour facility.
By its processing and shipping peak in 1992, Mixon Fruit Farms was processing about 400,000 boxes of citrus and making 250,000 gift packages to mail out, a majority of those during the Christmas season.
However, Mixon Fruit Farms has seen its acreage drop from about 350 acres in 2003 down to about 50 working acres of citrus — mostly navel oranges and red grapefruit — in 2023. For the past two years, a 10-acre block of Minneola tangelos was grown and harvested. In 2017, 12 acres of the farm was converted to organic bamboo.
Now, 84 years after its humble beginnings, Dean Mixon — grandson of Willie and Rosa Mixon — and his wife, Janet Mixon, are closing the doors of the iconic operation. Even though July 29 marked the final day for sales, weddings and birthday parties at the grove will continue through January 2024.
The pair reminisce about the grove’s past, present, and future. Dean and Janet, both 72, say there was a combination of factors that contributed to their decision to shutter for good, namely difficulty finding grove workers, their ages and the cost of insuring the grove office and shop buildings.
“It was the combination of not being able to get help, getting older and all that good stuff all kind of added up together,” says Dean, who began working in his parents’ groves as a child.
Dean Mixon, a Bradenton native, saw the business prosper firsthand. He stayed on the farm until he began college as a double major, studying business at Florida Technical University – now the University of Central Florida – from 1970 to 1972. From 1971 to 1972, he simultaneously studied citrus at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. He graduated from Florida Tech in 1973 with a business and agriculture degree.
Dean says he helped plan the farm’s expansion and designed the processing line that became a processing plant. He says the farm spanned 350 acres of groves by the 1970s, and it began selling its famous ice cream in 1986.
The farm took its first hard blow in the 1980s when citrus canker swept through the groves and the family lost 52 acres. New trees were planted only to become infested with the citrus tristeza virus. Dean said greening started having a real impact on the groves in 2020.
“Greening came along and basically finished it off,” he says.
That was a long way from Mixon Farms’ heydays. In 1992, there were about 120 workers employed; only about 20 part-time employees remained at the farm when it shut its doors.
Janet says the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 also played a large role in the decision to close. It was created to broaden trade among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, but it led to an increase in imports, including citrus, saturating the markets.
Dean and Janet Mixon say although they’ve been approached by developers seeking to turn the farm and groves into another subdivision or shopping plaza, they’d prefer to keep it as natural as possible.
They say the hope is that Manatee County will purchase the property – which is up for sale — and consider turning it into a public park. Along with the park, Janet says she hopes the county would retain the play area and the pavilion for weddings. The church the Mixons attend, Bayside Community Church, may buy the building. It would be partly used as a warehouse for the nonprofit CityServe Southwest Florida, which provides systems and resources for churches to reach their communities and meet their physical and spiritual needs. She says the organization has already been using part of the citrus plant for about two years and has given about $800,000 in necessities to families in need.
“They want the whole thing and that way they’ll be able to serve more, and we’ll be selling it at a very good deal,” says Janet, a native of Michigan who moved to Bradenton at 4 years old and attended kindergarten with Dean.
Other possible uses for Mixon Fruit Farms include keeping part of it for animal rescue and making a community garden and trails for environmental education uses.
“We really like what the county is proposing,” Dean says. “There were really no park areas or anything around us when they built thousands of homes, so there’s a real need.”
He says if more homes are built, the area would be more prone to flooding.
Though they are closing this chapter of their lives, the Mixons are opening another. By October, they plan to open and run a food and ice cream truck called The Mixon Swirl that will serve areas of Bradenton and Sarasota three to four times each week. Janet says that venture will allow the couple to keep in touch with longtime customers and meet those who never got a chance to visit the farm.
“I love the stories that people come in and tell us each day. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the food truck — so people can still find us, and I can still see people that have long histories with Mixon,” she says. “People are always coming in to reminisce.”
Janet says she’d like to get involved with the educational components of the park if the county forms one at the Mixon Fruit Farm location.
Otherwise, the couple say they’ll spend time with their children. Janet has a son in Clearwater, a daughter in Tampa and a daughter in Charleston, S.C.; Dean has a daughter in Denver. Between them, they have seven grandchildren. For fun, the Mixons say they may take a cruise and spend more time with grandchildren, three of which play high school volleyball.
“We just need to get away. When you own a business like this, you don’t ever get away. So, we’re going to try to have a life,” says Janet. “We’re probably going to a lot of volleyball games.”