Florida Farming Family Staying on Top of the Blueberry Game

The Hill family of Southern Hill Farms in Florida
[From left] Michael Hill, David Hill, and Kyle Hill of Southern Hill Farms in Clermont, FL, have seen the family farm grow and diversify in recent years.
Photo by Frank Giles
If there is one constant in farming, it is change. The Hill family has lived that change and adapted to keep in the game and stay ahead of the curve over the years since the family patriarch moved to Apopka in the 1950s.

“My grandfather moved down here from Eastern Virginia because he had heard about the fertile soils here,” says Michael Hill, a fourth generation Florida grower. “He moved here with nothing, but turned it into 1,000 acres of sweet corn, carrots, and radishes.”

The farm flourished until the late 1990s when the state bought out the muck lands around Lake Apopka.

“I was 12 years old at the time and had wanted to be a farmer all my life, so after the buyout, there were a couple of years where we figuring out what we would do next. My dad [David Hill] bought a property in Clermont. It was the early 2000s and the economy was good, so we started planting landscape trees.”

At about the time Hill graduated Auburn University, the recession hit and landscape trees were not doing well financially. In 2010, the family planted blueberries on the property, starting with 10 acres and growing to 40 acres. The family has another 40-acre planting in Tavares.

“I was involved with everything from putting out the pine bark, installing the irrigation, and laying out the fields,” Hill says. “Then I was in the fields every day taking care of the plants.”

When Michael’s brother Kyle graduated college, he began looking for a way to increase the scale of the operation to support the growing family business. “I met Ryan Atwood when we start growing blueberries,” he says. “He was a UF/IFAS Extension agent at the time, so I was peppering him with all these questions about production, so we developed a good relationship in the process. We both had seen there were marketing challenges with Florida blueberries and had some ideas how to address it.”

Billy Long Packing House at Southern Hill Farms
In its first season, the Billy Long Packing House is expected to ship 3 million pounds of blueberries.
Photo by Frank Giles

Gone Packing

With an alternative marketing approach, Hill and Atwood leased a small packing facility in Tavares for the 2015 season. The idea was to use multiple marketers under one packinghouse versus a single marketer, which is the norm in Florida. They began packing and marketing their own fruit and as well as berries for several other local growers.
“We packed in Tavares for two seasons and got pretty good returns,” Hill says. “We had other growers approaching us to pack their fruit, but the facility was not big enough and we were having to push people away. That’s when we decided to build a new facility.”

Construction began on the new, state-of-the-art facility in September to be ready in time for the 2017 season. The Billy Long Packing House kicked off its inaugural season in March. The building is named in remembrance of Hill’s grandfather who passed away this past December. The facility has the capacity to hold up to six packing lines. This season, three lines will run and it is expected to pack 3 million pounds of berries.

blueberry packing line
Photo by Frank Giles

“We are dealing with four marketers and they are not brokers, so we are dealing direct to retail,” Hill says. “It is harder to manage than a single marketer, but it does create competition and it gives us a better feel of what the market is doing, because we are talking to more people.”
Hill says with more blueberry acreage in the state, and its marketing window getting squeezed on the front end by growing production in Mexico and on the back end by Georgia, every step they can take to achieve better prices is critical.

“We are growers, too, not just a packinghouse,” he says. “So, our goal is making money and sending it back to the farm — our own and the growers we pack for.”

Building a facility from scratch, Hill and Atwood placed a priority quality control, traceability, and food safety. “We have a computer server that allows us to track the fruit from the time it comes into the packinghouse until it goes out,” Hill says. “We can track by variety down to the clamshell, so we can fulfill certain orders with certain varieties to ensure top quality.

“Everything we do is PrimusGFS, which is the highest standard for food safety certification you can get. We have a full-time employee that works with our growers to be sure we are on top of things. It is a huge undertaking, and with the Food Safety Modernization Act, it will be getting even more intense.”

Topics: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

2 comments on “Florida Farming Family Staying on Top of the Blueberry Game

  1. I’ve watched this Co develop & improve year after year. Was there today for the first time in 2017. They have become the blueberry leader in Lake Co. FL. Congrats!

Berries Stories
Closeup of Florida blueberries
Berries
April 6, 2017
Study Shows Bumblebees Can Boost Blueberry Yield Big Time
UF/IFAS researchers find placing hives of the distinct pollinator in the field pumps up output by 70%. Read More
Berries
March 30, 2017
Chateau Herbicide SW Now Registered for Use in Citrus, Caneberries
Broad spectrum preemergent herbicide to control broadleaf and grasses. Read More
SWD On Raspberry
Berries
March 26, 2017
Outsmarting SWD with Social Media
Entomologist in Kentucky uses social media for pest updates, trap catches. Read More
Freeze protected blueberry bushes in Florida
Berries
March 25, 2017
Florida Blueberry Crop Escapes Slap from Late-Season Cold Snap
Freeze protection tactics prove fruitful as local producers look to gain from Georgia’s loss. Read More
Frozen blueberries
Berries
March 15, 2017
Arctic Blast Gives Southern Fruit Growers the Chills
Peaches and berries in bloom most at risk from freezing temperatures. Read More
Growers boot up drone technology on the farm
Berries
March 3, 2017
Specialty Crops Primed for Precision Agriculture
Employing the latest horticultural technology tools could have substantial financial benefits for producers of hand-picked specialty crops, according to a new research paper. Read More
Berries
March 2, 2017
Pruning Pointers for Dormant Care of Berries
If you haven’t started pruning your berries, it’s time you do. Read More
Berries
February 26, 2017
Advantages to Growing Southern Highbush Blueberries
Growers in some regions where temperatures don’t get too low could consider the benefits of Southern highbush varieties. Read More
Berries
February 23, 2017
Primocane: A Major Innovation in Berry Production
I’ve witnessed the rise of primocane-fruiting blackberries, from first selections to integration in the market. Read More
2017 Florida Strawberry Picking Challenge winners
Berries
February 22, 2017
Florida Strawberry Picking Contest a Big Winner for Charity
Fourth-annual fundraising event brings in more than $100,000 to benefit children of local farmworkers. Read More
Registration area at the 2017 Florida Blueberry Growers Association Spring Meeting
Berries
February 17, 2017
Florida Blueberry Growers Counting on a Comeback
With last season's disaster in the rear view, all eyes are searching for bluer skies. Read More
Wish Farms mega strawberry donation
Berries
February 14, 2017
Wish Farms Shows Love With Super-Sized Strawberry Donation
More than 4,000 pounds of locally grown produce from Central Florida farming operation goes to help feed needy families in the Tampa area. Read More
Florida Beauty strawberries
Berries
February 10, 2017
New Florida Strawberry Shaping up to Be a Thing of Beauty
Unique variety, a collaboration between UF/IFAS and an Australian scientist, still in its early stages. Read More
raspberry closeup
Berries
February 6, 2017
Washington Berry Grower Accused Of Illegal Irrigation Appeals Fines
Gurjant “George” Sandhu says the fines were unjust, and the State Department of Ecology hadn’t provided adequate evidence. Read More
SWD On Raspberry
Berries
January 27, 2017
Spotted Wing Drosophila ‘Stars’ at National Berry Conference
Biocontrols, nutrition, and new varieties are also among the hot topics discussed at the annual berry meeting. Read More
The Latest
Berries
April 26, 2017
Tips To Manage Winter-Damaged Blueberrie…
While low-chill varieties in Southern states may have experienced freeze damage for the second year in a row, giving those plants extra care will help ensure a good start to the 2018 growing season. Read More
Berries
April 13, 2017
Florida Farming Family Staying on Top of…
The Hill family of Southern Hill Farms continues to up their efforts to diversify business and stay out ahead of a competitive market. Read More
Berries
April 10, 2017
North Carolina Blueberry Crop Still Kick…
Thanks to pruning cuts and a diverse mix of cultivars, the majority of the crop survived a series of March freezes. Read More
Berries
April 6, 2017
Study Shows Bumblebees Can Boost Blueber…
UF/IFAS researchers find placing hives of the distinct pollinator in the field pumps up output by 70%. Read More
Berries
March 30, 2017
Chateau Herbicide SW Now Registered for …
Broad spectrum preemergent herbicide to control broadleaf and grasses. Read More
Berries
March 26, 2017
Outsmarting SWD with Social Media
Entomologist in Kentucky uses social media for pest updates, trap catches. Read More
Berries
March 25, 2017
Florida Blueberry Crop Escapes Slap from…
Freeze protection tactics prove fruitful as local producers look to gain from Georgia’s loss. Read More
Berries
March 15, 2017
Arctic Blast Gives Southern Fruit Grower…
Peaches and berries in bloom most at risk from freezing temperatures. Read More
Berries
March 3, 2017
Specialty Crops Primed for Precision Agr…
Employing the latest horticultural technology tools could have substantial financial benefits for producers of hand-picked specialty crops, according to a new research paper. Read More
Berries
March 2, 2017
Pruning Pointers for Dormant Care of Ber…
If you haven’t started pruning your berries, it’s time you do. Read More
Berries
February 26, 2017
Advantages to Growing Southern Highbush …
Growers in some regions where temperatures don’t get too low could consider the benefits of Southern highbush varieties. Read More
Berries
February 23, 2017
Primocane: A Major Innovation in Berry P…
I’ve witnessed the rise of primocane-fruiting blackberries, from first selections to integration in the market. Read More
Berries
February 22, 2017
Florida Strawberry Picking Contest a Big…
Fourth-annual fundraising event brings in more than $100,000 to benefit children of local farmworkers. Read More
Berries
February 17, 2017
Florida Blueberry Growers Counting on a …
With last season's disaster in the rear view, all eyes are searching for bluer skies. Read More
Berries
February 14, 2017
Wish Farms Shows Love With Super-Sized S…
More than 4,000 pounds of locally grown produce from Central Florida farming operation goes to help feed needy families in the Tampa area. Read More
Berries
February 10, 2017
New Florida Strawberry Shaping up to Be …
Unique variety, a collaboration between UF/IFAS and an Australian scientist, still in its early stages. Read More
Berries
February 6, 2017
Washington Berry Grower Accused Of Illeg…
Gurjant “George” Sandhu says the fines were unjust, and the State Department of Ecology hadn’t provided adequate evidence. Read More
Berries
January 27, 2017
Spotted Wing Drosophila ‘Stars’ at Natio…
Biocontrols, nutrition, and new varieties are also among the hot topics discussed at the annual berry meeting. Read More