David Hill of Lakeshore Growers

David Hill of Lakeshore Growers – Tough choices, successful results

The St. Johns River Water Management District had bought the farmland Lisa’s family had owned since the early 1950s in an effort to clean up Lake Apopka. The family faced major decisions.

“It was probably the worst time of my life because of all the uncertainties,” David Hill said. “We wanted to stay in farming, but we had no clue what we were going to do or how we’d do it. We looked and looked until we found some property we liked. At the time, we didn’t know what we were going to do with it, we just knew we wanted to do something,” said Hill.

The extended Long family, including the Hills and Lisa’s parents, longtime FFVA board member Billy Long and his wife Bobbie, bought that land – 120 acres south of Clermont – and started a tree farm in 2000. Today, David and Lisa own and operate the Lakeshore Growers farm, growing landscape trees, including various holly trees, red maples, cypress and crepe myrtles, on 80 acres, which they sell to Cherry Lake Tree Farm, a large landscape tree farm in the area.

From left, Michael, David and Kyle Hill in the blueberry fields. Michael is part of FFVA's Emerging Leader Development Program.

The rest of the land is dedicated to blueberries.

“My son Michael graduated from Auburn a couple of years ago, and he’s helping me grow the blueberries,” Hill said. “We have 20 acres planted now, and we plan to finish the other 20 as soon as we can.”

Michael, in addition to his full schedule on the farm, is also a member of the 2011-2012 class of the FFVA Emerging Leader Development Program, which helps prepare tomorrow’s leaders to become effective advocates for the agriculture industry.

“I do have a long-time tree farm manager, but Michael is a big help throughout the whole farm,” said Hill. “He lends a hand with the trees when needed, but his primary responsibility is blueberries.” David and Lisa share ownership responsibilities.

Workforce could be a problem

He’s enthusiastic about being a blueberry producer, but acknowledges the business has its challenges. One of David Hill’s chief worries is possible legislation that could affect the workforce supply at harvest time. A measure has been proposed in Congress that would require employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the eligibility of employees to work in the United States. A similar bill was introduced during the last state legislative session.

“We handpick the berries, so we need a good, capable workforce, which might be threatened if mandatory E-Verify goes into effect,” he said. “I’m very concerned about that. We’ve been lobbying hard, along with everybody else who will be affected, trying to inform the public and the politicians as to its folly.” Hill became a member of the FFVA Labor Committee this past year.

Lisa Hill with daughter-in-law Brooke

“Thankfully, this year at least, we missed the boat [during the state Legislature], but I think it’s going to come around again. Politicians will keep trying, because it doesn’t hurt to try, and all it has to do is stick one time. Once it’s in, it’s hard to get it out. That’s my fear,” Hill said.

In addition to possible mandatory E-Verify legislation he says the blueberry industry faces many other challenges in the coming years including increasing acreage, new and formidable pests, and hungry birds.

And a narrow market window presents opportunities as well as challenges. “We have a small marketing window in Central Florida during late March and April that we have to hit in order for us to be profitable. Chilean berries are harvested normally until mid March and Georgia comes in at the end of April,” said Hill.

“The number of acres of blueberries being grown in Florida is still on the rise but thankfully so is consumption, Hill said.

Way of life balances out the worries

Bobbie and Billy Long celebrated Billy's birthday at the 2011 FFVA convention.

David Hill loves the independence of owning a business and working the land, but his greatest reward in running Lakeshore Growers is the chance to work with family.

“I’ve always worked with the family, which is great,” Hill said. “Now Michael is in [the company]. Our other son, Kyle, is in college and isn’t sure what he wants to do after he graduates, but he’s looking at working for the family business. It’s like icing on the cake to be able to bring your sons in and work with them.”

Hill was born in Lakeland and moved to Altamonte Springs in the second grade, later settling in Apopka and earning a degree in business law from Western Carolina University. He and Lisa went on their first date while they were high school freshmen. “It was great. We went to the Central Florida State Fair,” he said.

Learn more about the Long family farming history in Central Florida here.

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