The oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, tangelos, lemons, juice and fruit and fudge gift baskets sent all over the world that have made Mixon Fruit Farms famous are just part of the story now.
The Mixon family has been selling citrus in Manatee County since 1939 and their store, Mixon Fruit Farms, has evolved into a local institution and tourist attraction. "It's one of the last places in Manatee County that people can see agriculture up close and personal," said current owner Dean Mixon, whose dad, Bill, 79, spent more than 50 years at the store. "We still have a walking tour in the packinghouse," Mixon added. "And the tour goes into the middle of the groves so people can actually see fruit being picked." Today's Mixon Fruit Farms, however, is quite a bit different from the first "store," a wood lean-to on 350 acres of groves at 2712 26th Ave. E. The oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, tangelos, lemons, juice and fruit and fudge gift baskets sent all over the world that have made Mixon Fruit Farms famous are just part of the story now. The store now has a propane-powered tram that can hold 65 visitors as it meanders the 20-acre site, offering a glimpse at the entire operation. On that 45-minute tour, which costs $7 for adults and $3 for children, visitors will see Justin Mathews Wildlife Rescue, which features birds of prey, owls, hawks, raccoons, possum, boa constrictors and a python. Mathews does hands-on demonstrations for visitors at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Just north of the store, near where Mathews has his wildlife, owners Janet and Dean Mixon have recently built a 250-seat pavilion and garden oasis, which is often rented for weddings or family reunions. Just completed in January, the pavilion has already hosted three weddings and a chamber of commerce event, Mixon said. From 6-9 p.m. the third Thursday of every month, the Mixons plan to hold "Concerts in the Grove" at the pavilion. Near the pavilion is the Butterfly Maze Garden, which features a large pond stocked with koi. Inside the store, changes have also been made. Fifteen years ago, fudge began to be sold on site, joining citrus candy and the popular vanilla and orange swirl soft-serve ice cream station. The Mixons also opened a sandwich and soup deli in the north part of the store. And a big seller is the store's kettle corn. Also new is a meeting room that will hold 100, with wireless Internet and state of art audio-visual equipment. There is also a 1,400-square-foot gift shop that offers knick-knacks, toys, clothes, Florida tourist kitsch and Florida wines. "We have wine-tasting every day," Mixon said. With all the changes, one thing has not gone away. Mixon Fruit Farms is famous for its free orange and grapefruit juice in the middle of the store, dispensed ice cold from large containers that attract visitors like moths to a light. "On a peak day we go through 15 to 20 gallons of juice," Mixon said. Many visitors ask Janet Mixon if the farm grows all the produce it sells. Her answer is that urbanization has forced the Mixons to sell off some of their land to developers. During the store's peak as an agriculture producer, in 1991, the Mixons were growing on 350 acres. Since then, 250 acres have been sold to development. Mixon Fruit Farms leases back 75 of those, leaving about 175 in production. "We don't grow all of our fruit anymore," Dean Mixon said. "We get some from other areas primarily because of the urbanization in our area. We purchase the crop on some acreage in Myakka City." William P. Mixon Sr. started the store in the wooden lean-to and grew it by delivering fresh fruit and juice to the Dixie Grand Hotel in downtown Bradenton. "They liked our fruit and wanted to send it to their friends and relatives," Dean Mixon said. "That's how our gift-fruit business began." Dean Mixon said that he and his grandfather Bill Sr. were close "We were best buddies," Dean Mixon said. "He died when I was 14. He taught me most of what I know about citrus." William Mixon's son, Bill, was one of six children, who, at one time, were all in the business. Finally, it came down to Bill Mixon and his brother, Gene. Gene left the business and Bill, who had worked at the store from age 16, took over. Janet and Dean Mixon bought out the family two years ago. "My dad, Bill, would be out here every day if he could," Dean Mixon said. "He still loves to come out and drive his tractor." Mixon Fruit Farms, at 2712 26th Ave. E., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday from Nov. 1 to May 1 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday from May 1 to Oct. 30. For more information, visit www.mixon.com or call 748-5829.