“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.”
Moving Toward Mechanization
Given the labor situation, Hill says if you are not looking mechanical harvest, you might not be in the blueberry game in the coming years. The state’s blueberry growers have made a move toward H-2A labor, but the program is rife with red tape, delays, and high costs.
Last season, the family purchased and used an Oxbo 8000 on their farm in Mid-May to harvest fresh blueberries after most growers where shut down because prices wouldn’t support hand labor costs. Hill says the machine did a good job with 90% packout.
“Everything we are doing is gearing up toward machine harvest,” he says. “With Mexico and Georgia coming into our window, we have no option. Last year with the machine, our harvesting cost was 5 cents per pound, versus $1 or $1.10 per pound. We need to be looking a mechanical harvest even when prices are good.”
When blueberries go into the ground, they are planted in orange juice boxes to train the plants to grow upright and clean, so the mechanical harvester’s fins can fit under the bush. Even traditional varieties can be trained to be machine harvestable.
“‘Emerald’ can be machine harvested,” Hill says. “You need to hand pick it a couple of times, but it can be machine picked.”
U-Picking in the Hills
Another successful diversification of the family’s agricultural business has been the addition of a blueberry U-Pick on the Clermont farm site. Southern Hill Farms is in a perfect location not far from Orlando, right between the 429 Expressway and SR 27. Disney property can be seen from the farm.
“One of the most important things with a U-Pick is location,” Hill says. “If you are not in a prime location, don’t have high expectations. We are fortunate that we are in one. We can see the EPCOT ball from the farm.”
While located near Orlando, the farm is a great escape for city folks in the rolling hills. Michael’s wife, Brooke, manages the U-Pick and has done a great job marketing the farm. She established a website and the farm’s Facebook page has more than 13,000 fans. The U-Pick is in its fourth season and has far exceeded expectations for success.
The U-Pick offers plenty of entertainment options beyond just picking berries. There is a retail market, playgrounds, and more. “We are doing festivals now, host a big 5K run, have food trucks, farm rides, and tours,” Hill says. “We can get more than 3,000 people on the farm a day. It has become a whole other business, and we have 30 employees on the weekends.”
Tried, True, and Blue
Michael Hill says new blueberry varieties are constantly being evaluated on Southern Hill Farms. He says new varieties have promise, but they do have issues. “‘Meadowlark’ is a good machine-harvest berry, but it has Xylella issues past five years old,” he says. “‘Arcadia’ has shown promise, but has recently shown Ralstonia problems. ‘Kestrel’ is a good evergreen variety and is early, but it is almost too early.
“We keep coming back to ‘Emerald.’ It is the tried and true variety in this region north of the I-4 corridor. I look at the numbers and ‘Emerald’ performs and makes money for us every year. How do you walk away from that?”