Between the oak groves and along the St Johns River there’s a family-owned citrus farm built by hand by Cecil and Stella Nelson. It’s kinda magical.
Apr 14th • 2016
Updated May 2018 – I’m sad to share that Cecil Nelson passed from this earth on May 13th. He was a good man with a great heart and I’ll be forever grateful to have had the chance to meet his family, see his farm, and experience a truly beautiful part of Florida. Rest in peace.
This is one of those quick posts where I set the stage and the photographs will lead you home. So here I was, not more than an hour and a half south of Jacksonville and into central Florida. There were no layovers, no changes in language, no standard benchmark of travel…simply fewer buildings and larger stretches of the land but it feels like a different world. There were hand-crafted signs for blueberry festivals and disheveled motels hinting at abandonment. The humidity was heavier and the ocean breezes were absent.
It doesn’t get more “Florida” than this.
Nestled in the small town of San Mateo, east of Palatka sits the citrus farm of Cecil and Stella Nelson. They began this venture in 1986 with a bunch of young citrus trees. The farm might very well be the most northern citrus grove in Florida, protected in part by its proximity to the St. Johns River. Today he grows everything from red grapefruits to blood oranges, kumquats, ponderosa lemons, and more across 10 acres in the main grove and another couple of acres adjacent to their home. Beyond the varied forays intro citrus, he also has peach trees, pomegranates, and a variety of other fruit trees thought out the property including pineapples.
But aside from the beauty of the property and the life nestled in every corner, the Nelsons are just lovely people…they’re old school southern. My group had arrived to review and vet the farm as part of their participation in the Beaches Green Market. (We work to do this with all the vendors.) But before any tour began, we sat in their living room and talked for a good long while and Stella served us homemade iced tea from kumquats. Delicious and refreshing…the tea and the conversation.
Cecil had grown up in Hawthorne but life and the army had taken him across the world and then to Fort Lauderdale before returning home and working with Florida Power & Light. Sally was a registered nurse. Together, they built a home. Literally and figuratively.
In the 1980s, they bought 10-acres down the road from a citrus farmer looking for a change. Through the years, they have some hired help, but in general, it’s Cecil and Stella caring for the land, planting new trees, and more.
The last couple of years have been particularly rough with the spread of citrus greening, caused by a tiny bug, the Asian psyllid. But the Nelsons have remained consistent, a steadfast sign of what makes Florida special.
Long story short…there is something beautiful about farming. It’s rough work, not for the faint of heart…but the fruits (literal and figurative) are beautiful and humbling. Please don’t forget that your food has an origin story. Choose the better story.