— Michael Hill of Southern Hill Farms —
Michael Hill brings a long line of knowledge to his blueberry operation, Southern Hill Farms.
His grandfather, Billy Long, came to Central Florida from Virginia to farm in the 1950s. Over the years, he revolutionized the way Florida farmers produce, harvest and sell their crops. An inductee to the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame, Billy Long has been an active FFVA member for most of his life.
Michael’s parents, David and Lisa Hill, grow landscape trees and blueberries, also under the Southern Hills Farms umbrella.
Michael, who is a graduate of the first class of FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program, returned to the family farm after graduating from Auburn University in 2010 with degrees in agricultural economics and Spanish. That’s when the blueberry idea was born.
“We had 40 acres at our farm in Clermont that just was open ground. It didn’t have any irrigation on it and nothing was planted in it,” Hill said. “My dad and I talked about putting blueberries in it and made the decision to go ahead while I was still at Auburn. We put 20,000 plants in a greenhouse at my parents’ house in gallon pots, which is about 10 acres worth, and then we planted 10 acres in March 2011. We had to get the ground ready — I did that myself on tractors — and put up mulch. And then we put in another 10 acres and another 20 after that. We have 40 acres of blueberries now. We did that over a two-year planting period.”
Hill also has a partnership on another 40 acres in the Tavares area and a partnership in a blueberry packinghouse that packs the farm’s blueberries as well as those from seven other growers. Southern Hill Farms also runs a popular U-pick operation that is open seven days a week until May 25.
“The packinghouse is a partnership with Ryan Atwood, who was in the Emerging Leaders Class 3,” Hill said. “He was an extension agent when we started the blueberries. I would meet with him a lot to talk about growing. He’s very knowledgeable. He also worked for KeyPlex, which deals in micronutrients, and since then he started his own farm. We’re partners in that and the packinghouse.”
Hill is right in the middle of his busy season, which started about 2½ weeks early this year because of the weather. He said the packinghouse expects to sell close to 1 million pounds of blueberries this season, which normally is in April and May. Hill’s farm will produce about 200,000 pounds of that total. The packinghouse sells to two marketers, one of which supplies the Trader Joe’s chain.
And they offer several berry varieties. “Those aren’t marketed as different varieties like apples are, but some travel better than others, so we set those aside to be exported,” Hill said. “We micromanage the farms and pick and label by varieties. We’re trying to be very progressive in packing. That way we can maximize return for the growers.”
The packinghouse operation prides itself on its openness with its growers. Hill says they share information such as bills of lading, so the growers can see costs and the prices the fruit brought. “We show our growers the receipts we get from the marketers, how much we get each week and how much was packed, so that way the growers have a sense of comfort. They know we’re growers ourselves – it’s all grower-run. We know what it’s like to be on that side of the business.”
As with any business, there are plenty of challenges. Having a secure and dependable workforce tops the list. “Labor is a challenge. The workers started to leave for Georgia a couple of weeks ago. I’d say beside the costs of everything, labor security is our biggest challenge, because everything here is hand-harvested,” Hill said.
Challenges notwithstanding, Hill knows he was born for the job – especially the farming itself. “I’ve been in love with the farming aspect since I was a kid. I grew up in the fields growing things. And the best part is the feeling that you had something to do with something that turned out right. The feeling of failure is horrible, so it’s great to see something done right.”
Hill and his wife, Brooke, have two children: Trace, 3, and Quinn Marie, 16 months. After the season is over, he and Brooke will take a well-deserved vacation. “When you’re running the packinghouse, you’re working until 2 a.m. and then you’re back out there at 6 a.m. At least it’s a short season.”
Find out more about Southern Hill farms here.