Lake O Livelihoods: Retired roofer runs veggie oasis in a food desert

MOORE HAVEN — Anybody who’s driven through town on U.S. 27 in the past several years might know who Mr. Bean is. He’s the smiling oldish guy seen in the same spot, all morning and into the afternoons, on midweek days from September through May, selling fresh vegetables from the back of his truck at the corner of 10th Street.

Retired roofer Gary Bean, who first started coming to Florida as a 21-year-old Ohioan in 1960 and moved here permanently in ’68, doesn’t have any sign-wavers on the road beckoning folks to stop; he doesn’t need to. You’ll often see him reclined in a lawn chair under a tarp next to his truck, reading a newspaper or magazine and not bothering a soul but just waiting for the area’s fresh-veggie lovers to stop by.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Eighty-year-old Gary Bean brings a load of fresh fruits and vegetables from Immokalee as many as three days a week during season to sell to his neighbors in Moore Haven.

And there are plenty of them, who have kept him coming back season after season for about the last six years.

“I’ve been here in Moore Haven for about, close to 30 years,” he said. “Came up from Hollywood to get out of the rat race down there. I’ve been around elsewhere … Lakeport, south down near Plantation, but I’ve been here for a lot of years.”

Few other places to find it
Business has been pretty decent for him, too. “There’s really nowhere else (close by) to buy them. The Dollar General sells a little bit…” of produce, Mr. Bean said, not bothering to add a “but.” The locals like the produce he brings to the area, it’s plain.

He doesn’t grow his own but travels down to Immokalee, which is in the midst of hundreds of acres of farmland in southern Hendry County. The growers in the area are known for producing some of the tastiest vegetables available in South Florida, so they’re widely available down there. When they are not growing them, much produce is readily available from other regions of America with different growing seasons.

They’re all homegrown, but “they get them from everywhere. It’s a big growing area in season, but a lot of stuff is not in season right now in Florida.”

Busy times do come and go all year but even during season, Mr. Bean says, though it doesn’t vary all that much from year to year, he thinks.

“The season means a lot, too, because you’ve got a lot of RV parks around here; snowbirds come down, and you’ve got more people around. Matter of fact, I go up into a couple of the parks up here in the season and set right up in the parks,” where, he said, “a lot of Canadians” winter.

He doesn’t believe his current business is very tied to the fortunes of Lake Okeechobee, but the heavier traffic during winter and the fishing tournament season definitely brings him more sales. Every year, he’ll knock off for a few months during the sweltering South Florida summers, though.

“Oh yeah,” he said when asked, “this year, all of June, all of July and all of August” he was nowhere to be found, Mr. Bean chuckled.

Like many folks who live around here, he has fond memories of spending peaceful time on Lake Okeechobee.

“I’ve kind of gotten away from it now that I’ve got older, but I’ve fished the lake an awful lot, and all the canals that go into the lake. The fishing is not near as good as it used to be, at all, not near as good. And I don’t know whether that’s pollution or … the fish are here year after year, but it seems like they get harder to find.”

He remembers how everything changed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened out the Kissimmee River decades ago and made it more of a canal. “Then they had to put it back … because of the drainage issues and lack of filtering native marine grasses and such species,” he said. Mr. Bean also does object to the herbicide spraying that’s been done along the shores of the lake because it does kill fish habitat, he says. He likes the idea of mechanical harvesting of the plant overgrowth and/or invasive species, and perhaps recycling the biomass.

Queried about his memories of being a roofer in South Florida, he said: “I’ve been here for a lot of hurricanes … They call most of those roofers — they come from out of town, out of state — ‘roofers from hell.’ They gave the local people, hometown roofers a bad name.”

He was one super-busy guy after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It took out much of everything standing in Homestead and did massive damage in a whole lot of Miami suburbs and exurbs and, of course, in the upper Florida Keys.

And then South Florida counties got a much more stringent building code. “That’s where it came from, after Andrew … they got strict after that,” said Mr. Bean.

Had to ask, “How old are you, sir?”

“I just turned 80 the other day. September the 2nd when Dorian was going to hit … I’d rather have a birthday party!”

But he was ready for it. “Bye-bye, hurricane, and Happy Birthday to me,” he laughed.

He noted that everybody did seem better prepared for Hurricane Dorian, had it come this way. We spoke on Sept. 10, a week after everyone was able to breathe again.

He took care of business, just in case. But hurricanes don’t scare him much.

Send suggestions for this ongoing series to Chris Felker at cfelker@newszap.com.

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