A fourth generation of the Bekemeyer family is keeping the Winter Garden farm functioning and producing fruits and vegetables.
When George John Bekemeyer and his wife, Willie, started their farm in Winter Garden in 1920, they likely wouldn’t have predicted it would stay in the family for the next 100 years. Today, the farm at 1055 E. Story Road continues its legacy of fresh produce with a grandson at the helm and many family members sharing in the laborious work.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services awarded the farm last month with a Century Pioneer Family Farm certificate, given to family businesses celebrating 100 years of continuous farm ownership. The Bekemeyers join five other family farms in Orange County that have received the honor.
And it is a true family farm and all members of the family actually work the farm, said Nancy Bekemeyer, whose father- and mother-in-law were the original proprietors.
John Bekemeyer owns and manages the farm, which grows produce through hydroponic and natural methods. He said he and his family are proud to have “held in there that long.”
As for his grandparents, he said, “I think they’d be amazed that it’s still going on 100 years. They’re probably looking down and are proud and would be glad it’s still citrus, which is what he came down to do.”
John Bekemeyer applied for the Century Pioneer designation earlier this year and said it was a tedious process.
“You had to show from each deed transfer that it stayed in the family,” he said. “Luckily that’s online now and … it was all old scans. I found some very interesting stuff going through it; I found the original plat.”
A majority of the property once was owned by Overstreet Crate Company, which timbered the land and made chicken crates, John Bekemeyer said.
When George John and Willie Bekemeyer arrived in the city a century ago, they bought and converted 20 acres of flatwood pine trees and palmettos into a farm and citrus groves one acre at a time using an ax, a grubbing tool, their mule and a hand plow. Orange trees were planted in the front 15 acres; the back five were used for the family’s personal garden.
There always was fresh-squeezed orange juice in the refrigerator and fresh fruits and vegetables on the supper table to feed three generations living together near the farm.
“All we had to do was buy meat,” Nancy Bekemeyer said.
Nancy Bekemeyer recalled her father-in-law rising at 4 a.m. several days a week and driving into Orlando to sell his produce to several customers. A few stores in downtown Winter Garden bought Bekemeyer produce as well.
“I think it’s remarkable to think that we still have this land and it hasn’t been turned into houses,” Nancy Bekemeyer said. “We’d like to hold onto it as long as we can.”
There are only two houses on the property. The original Bekemeyer home, a white, wooden structure; and a house just to the north of it where George William and Nancy Bekemeyer eventually moved to and where she still lives today.
THE NEXT GENERATIONS
Weather isn’t always kind to farmers, as the Bekemeyers discovered. Several devastating freezes in the 1980s killed the citrus groves, but Nancy Bekemeyer’s husband, George William, was planning to recover his losses and was out in the field resetting trees.
Farming was a part of his life until he died in 2017.
Nancy Bekemeyer grew up on a farm, as well, so she was familiar with the lifestyle when she married George William Bekemeyer. After both of his parents died, his three sisters suggested he take over the farm.
“We thought it would be just a few years, and those few years are still going on,” Nancy Bekemeyer said.
Their five children — Jan, Julie, George Jr., John and Nancy — are the third generation of Bekemeyers to work in the farm. Some of their children are employed there, too.
“Growing up we didn’t have timeouts; we were handed a hoe and told to go pull weeds and get the stink vine out of the orange trees,” John Bekemeyer said. “That was our life. We grew up on the farm. We came home, and you went out to the grove to either play or work. Because you had that whole 20 acres to get lost in. … You’ve got your BB gun and your 20 acres of trees.”
Nancy Bekemeyer recalls her children digging holes in the groves and jumping in them — or adding water and attempting to swim in them.
Those holes are long filled, but a few things from that era remain; scattered on the property are a number of decades-old vehicles. A few still run.
“One thing I didn’t have to do was run the tractor,” Nancy Bekemeyer said. “George did most of it, and then when the kids got big enough, they did it, too.”
“I remember driving the 1951 Ford 8N tractor,” John Bekemeyer said. “We still use it. That’s what I learned to drive on.”
FARMING IN THE FUTURE
Ten years ago, the Asian citrus psyllid, a small insect that produces bacteria that infects citrus trees with a deadly virus, made an appearance. By 2014, when John Bekemeyer took over the farm, there were no trees left, he said.
When the psyllids destroyed the citrus grove, he did some research and came up with a plan that altered — and improved — the output at the farm.
The family burned the remaining citrus trees, created U-pick fields and built a farm stand. Out front are vertical hydroponic containers to hold strawberry plants. A greenhouse is ready to start growing flowers.
When the planting is complete, the farm will have about 2,700 citrus trees. A quick walk through the grove with John Bekemeyer gives insight to the intricacy of the job. He can rapidly identify the varieties of the citrus trees and when each one will reach peak production.
The farm includes blueberries, bananas, mangoes, peaches, avocado, lettuces and herbs, many of them available through U-Pick. Another project is the growing of micro greens. Seedlings are grown indoors under lights, and the process takes only eight to 10 days to produce.
Honeybees are busy at work near the back of the property; their honey is sold in the onsite market. Berries are turned into jam processed by Lake Meadows Farm.
Nancy Bekemeyer is in her 80s and goes out into the field nearly every day while her daughter Nancy Bekemeyer Walker and grandson Bryce Walker operate the small shop on the property. All family members play a role in the farm operation.
“I go out there and pull weeds, and we pick the strawberries that nobody wants — I make popsicles for us,” she said. “I also made jam for us. … I take care of what has to be done.”
She added: “In the beginning, (the kids) said, ‘You and Daddy don’t have anything to do; just stay inside and watch your TV and have your coffee or tea. … Well, we did (work) anyway. It keeps you going, and it gives you something to do, and it keeps you young. It keeps you moving.”