Organic farmer Frank Oakes has died

Organic produce grower Frank Oakes waters his strawberry plants in a effort to prevent frost damage on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009, in Collier County. Local farmers scrambled to save their crops as Collier and Lee counties fell under a 'hard freeze warning' overnight. David Albers/ Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

Organic produce grower Frank Oakes waters his strawberry plants in a effort to prevent frost damage on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009, in Collier County. Local farmers scrambled to save their crops as Collier and Lee counties fell under a "hard freeze warning" overnight. David Albers/ Staff

— Frank Oakes, the gregarious local farmer who founded Oakes Farms and Food & Thought, go-to stops for all things organic in Collier County, died in his sleep Sunday, his brother said. He was 66.

Starting with a small fruit stand in Fort Myers about 35 years ago, Oakes gradually built his business in Southwest Florida, buying farm land in eastern Collier County in 1989, then opening an all-organic store in Naples in 2004. Along the way, Oakes accumulated a dedicated following, seen any day at Food & Thought, his brother Mitch Oakes recalled Monday night.

"The amazing thing is that whenever I visited his store, every woman I saw there would give him a hug and every man would shake his hand," Mitchell Oakes, 65, said.

The son of a second-generation farmer and eldest of nine children, Oakes started in produce at an early age, hopping around Delaware with his father's roadside markets. After a three-year stint in the Army in the '60s, Oakes eventually landed in Southwest Florida, where his grandparents lived, and opened a fruit stand along Highway 31 in Fort Myers. By the late 1980s, his attention turned to the current-day Oakes Farms, home to tomatoes, kale and strawberries.

But Oakes' passion, the drive that made him renowned in the area, was organic food.

Once in the mainstream when it came to modern agricultural farming, Oakes gained local notoriety for promoting and selling only organic products. Food & Thought became known for its fresh soups, raw milk and veggie juices. Oakes described himself as "militantly organic" and put his words into action, maintaining long hours late in his life.

"He probably worked himself to death," Mitch Oakes said. "His hours in the store were tremendous. If he wasn't working 60 to 70 hours a week, I'd be shocked."

Oakes' clientele remained loyal over the years, so much so that he needed renovations about 3 1/2 years ago to Food & Thought, located on the northeast corner of U.S. 41 and Golden Gate Parkway, to accommodate his business. He attracted a few well-known customers over the years, including disco queen Donna Summer, a North Naples resident later in life who was fond of Oakes' chicken soup, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who lived in Naples before taking office in Tallahassee.

"Every member of our family considered Frank a close personal friend," Scott and his wife, Ann, in a statement. "Our family and Frank's Naples community will dearly miss his compassion and optimism."

On the environmental front, Oakes also found a voice in local politics, arguing against the use of pesticides and fluoride in drinking water. Though Oakes never acted on any aspirations for holding office, his brother said his geniality assured him a fighting chance in any local race.

"I thought he'd be mayor of Naples one of these years," Mitch Oakes said. "We just always teased him because he's so vocal about what he believes."

Oakes is survived by his wife, Wendy, two sons Alfie and Eric, and several grandchildren. No funeral plans were set as of Monday night.

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