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.”
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.
“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.”