Citrus and Wildlife Exploration at Mixon Fruit Farms
One possible option is the family-owned Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, in Florida’s Southwest, not far from the Gulf Coast. The folks at Mixon use their gift shop, tram tour, and self-guided factory tour to educate visitors about citrus growth as well as wildlife, the latter through their agreement to provide space to the Wildlife, Inc. Education & Rehabilitation Center.
A recent Saturday visit found a moderately large crowd packed into Mixon’s large gift shop, the latter of which was reminiscent of Cracker Barrel meets Amish country meets a roadside fruit stand. As customers perused souvenirs, they sampled orange juice, grapefruit juice, lemonade, fudge (including, of course, orange swirl), ice cream, and citrus fruits. I found the juice and navel orange samples refreshing, but I had trouble eating and peeling the small kumquat–only later did I read in a leaflet from Mixon that you can eat the rind of a kumquat. The store also sells and has samples of wine with flavors like strawberry riezling or blackberry merlot, but the wine comes from another in-state vendor, store manager Ann Dennen says.
The gift shop, deli, and self-guided factory tour take place in the same building. If you visit during the week, you can take the factory tour and see employees processing fruit, completing tasks such as sorting for quality control and sending fruit to be juiced. Whenever you visit, there are signs that explain what goes on in each step shown in the processing plant/factory.
The tram tour ($10 for adults, $5 for children 3-10, free under age 3) lasts about an hour long. This particular tour included a few families, elderly patrons, and an animated children’s birthday party group (the farm hosts birthday parties and weddings in its maze area, pavilion, and koi pond). Tour guide Damen Hurd stopped the tram to show us the large bags that can hold up to 120 lbs. of fruit. Workers fill the bags, dump that fruit into a box, and the boxes are loaded onto a truck. The trucks then transport the fruit to the nearby processing plant, where fruit is inspected for quality control.
The tram ride shows off the various citrus trees on the property, including navel oranges (which make up the bulk of the trees), lemons, tangerines, hybrid varieties, kumquats, and even a few peach trees. There’s also a small area for muscadine grapes, a yield which the Mixons gave away free to the public during the last harvest. Hurd shared some history of the Mixon property, including different ways through the decades that the fruit is kept warm during winter’s cold. He also says that the 350 acres sits on what used to be a sugar cane plantation in the 1800s. The farm opened in 1939. Long-time owner Bill Mixon, who is now in his 80s and the son of the original owner, still has a house on the grove’s property and is often seen working on the grove, although other family members now actively run the business.
The bulk of the tour focuses on animals that are part of the Wildlife, Inc. At its animal hospital in Anna Maria, Wildlife, Inc. treats about 6,000 cases of injured animals a year, says Hurd, who is also one of its wildlife rehabilitators. The animals kept on the Mixon property (in caged areas) often have been injured or were found living in inappropriate circumstances. Take for instance the two-year-old white tailed deer who was being raised in someone’s trailer or the rooster who was a pet in Sarasota’s city limits but who often awoke the neighbors, or the skunk who was kept as a pet but eventually tried to attack its owner (skunks can be kept as pets if they are deglanded, Hurd reveals).
Other animals shown during the tour, some of which spectators can touch, include raccoons, Joe the feral pig, a Burmese python (that very long reptile got some real ohhs and ahhs from the birthday party group), a green iguana, a tortoise, a sandhill crane, a great horned owl, an Eastern screech owl, and a crested caracara, the latter of which is a rare bird found only in Florida and on the border of Mexico.
Someone might visit Mixon Fruit Farms because of a curiosity about how citrus grows or as an inexpensive family-friendly alternative to amusement parks. However, in December, another reason to visit might be for gift basket or box orders. These include orders with citrus fruits (naturally) as well as wine, wine glasses, jams, jellies, coconut patties, and other goodies, Dennen says. The fruit selected for the boxes and baskets are of premium quality, meaning they cannot have any blemishes. The baskets are often ordered for the holidays and as thank you gifts, Dennen adds.