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Family farm flourishes



Nelson Family Farms

Fresh fruits and vegetables are available for shoppers at Nelson Family Farms on Midway Road in White City.
ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO

Nelsons say 70 years of success rooted in American values

BY CHRISTINA TASCON

When Alfred and Hilda Nelson opened their first citrus grove in 1938, selling the fruit out of their front yard, they could not have imagined the success future generations would enjoy on that same spot.

From a business started to support one small White City farming family, Nelson Family Farms has helped feed and raise four generations of Nelsons plus more than forty employees and many local farmers who sell to the farmer’s market on Midway Road and Oleander Avenue.

This is a hands-on family-run operation which still sees the owners manning the juicer, roasting coffee beans and pitching in where needed. Until 1998 every piece of citrus harvested was at the hands of a family member.

“Back in the day, if you did all the work yourself and had 10 acres you could make a good living, but not anymore,” Alfred’s son, Bill Nelson, says.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Alfred Neilsen came from Denmark in 1919, landed on Ellis Island and immediately became a Nelson. Family names were often misspelled or changed in those days. He first lived in Minnesota but moved south to escape the cold. He met his wife, Hilda, and they farmed tomatoes and strawberries in Wauchula as they raised their three children, Bill, Mary Ellen and Alfred Jr.

In 1938 they moved to White City in an area that was predominantly Danish. The 10 acres they bought were neighbors to others from Denmark and they all formed a strong community bond.

The family sold citrus out of their driveway, coming out of the grove when customers pulled up and honked their horns. They would be open for just six months of the year while citrus was harvested from late November to May. The entire family, adults and children, worked the grove together, (children before and after school) and would take the fruit to the Indian River to load on the Flagler train to ship it north.

Bill Nelson served in Korea with the Army, then returned to the family farm. He retired after 30 years with Southern Bell and began working full time with his father in the family citrus business. Together Bill and Alfred built a small fruit stand selling citrus on the corner in 1977.

Bill married and he and his wife, Charlotte, had three children who were raised around the business. In his youth, son Daniel thought he would take a career path away from the farm. After serving a tour in the Air Force, he became a government contractor and worked outside the country. While in Colombia, he reconnected with the woman who would be his wife for the next 20 years.

“We met in third grade at White City Elementary,” Lisa Nelson says. “My parents bought their citrus at the Nelsons’ corner fruit stand and we were all good friends. We had not been dating, but in 1995 when I was at the University of Florida studying landscape architecture we reconnected. It was like we all came full circle.”

NEW GROWTH
In 1998, Dan and Lisa came into the business, then in 2004 they and Bill and Charlotte Nelson broke ground on the current Nelson Family Farms. The enterprise has been expanding exponentially since the new market-nursery opened, filled with high-quality ornamental trees and shrubs, citrus trees and fresh produce. The produce market is the main enterprise, but people come from all over to buy citrus trees and plants for their own gardens.

At age 87, Bill Nelson lets his son handle the citrus tree business, one of the only ones left on Florida’s east coast, but five years ago he added a new enterprise. He began roasting and selling his own fresh ground coffee beans, a line called Bill’s Gourmet Coffee, which is a great addition to the market.

“He is like my hero,” Lisa Nelson says. “I hope at his age I am able to be as imaginative and productive as him.”

Dan says the business just built up naturally and began to diversify, but he is proud that the family kept to their agricultural roots.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see the evolution of a family business, generations giving support to each other and every generation being open to new ideas,” Lisa Nelson says. “Alfred and Hilda selling fruit out of their driveway, then Bill and Charlotte opening the corner market and now the new building built with innovative ideas and sharing it with family. That is a real treasure.”

AIM TO PLEASE
Familiar with malangas or murasakis? Likely not, but they’re available at Nelson’s, and if you ask, a staff member will educate you. Every day visitors come to the market and find something they have never seen or could not find anywhere else.

If a customer is searching for a hard-to-find item to complete a grandmother’s recipe or to use in a dish for a religious or cultural celebration, the Nelsons will try to find it.

“Every culture has a family of ingredients,” Lisa Nelson says. “Food is a worldwide language for comfort and to share with others for entertainment.”

Local chefs come to the market specifically to find unusual products needed for their ethnic menus. Today’s trends keep the products changing.

“It used to be that we would buy a case of kale and throw half of it away, but now we have to buy it by the pallet,” Dan Nelson says. “When Dr. Oz mentions something is really good for you, we have to make sure we have it stocked. We only use our own orange and grapefruit juice in the Indian River citrus season and use locally made Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice out of season, but year-round we stock Natalie’s beet juice. That is because people are really into juicing now — every two years trends change.”

Come to Nelson’s and you will find every type of produce, herbs, Amish cheeses and rolled butter, juices, pastas, pickled jams and marinades, organic vegetables, fresh baked items, ornamental flowers and trees in the garden center and more than 40 varieties of citrus trees. The list is too long to print here. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, just ask.

GROWN IN THE USA
Although they grow Indian River Citrus to make their juice and to sell in St. Lucie County, and the citrus trees are grown in their greenhouses, most other items are bought from Florida farmers, most from the local area. If it is not grown or available in Florida first, they will go to other farms in the United States and only buy outside the country when certain items are not available here or are having supply issues.

“I really think the reason we have been so successful is that we really hold onto the notion of American ingenuity,” Lisa Nelson says. “Alfred came here as an immigrant with the thought of freedom in the United States to have free enterprise by opening his own business. He passed that on to Bill and Bill and Charlotte passed it on to Daniel. All of us treasure the ability to build a business in accord with your own hard work and then share it with your community.”