David Hill, owner of Southern Hill Farms near Clermont, Fla., likes to joke about his questionable sanity when it comes to inviting hundreds of public visitors to his commercial blueberry operation during the busiest time of the year – harvest.
In all seriousness, he and other family members say that starting a U-pick operation makes sense economically and for the long-term sustainability of their farm.
Not only will the U-pick allow the Hills to receive a reasonable return for their fruit at the end of the season when prices typically decline, but it also will provide interaction with consumers.
click image to zoomVicky BoydSouthern Hill Farms, a commercial blueberry operation near Clermont, Fla., began inviting the public out on weekends to pick fruit this season.“It’s amazing when we say we’re growing blueberries – people are just excited with the thought of the farm,” says Lisa Hill, David’s wife. “There was a time when farming wasn’t so in vogue. Now people are starting to appreciate where their food comes from and where their fruits and vegetables come from.”
Michael Hill, Lisa and David’s son, says he also sees the U-pick as an investment in the next generation.
“Educating the kids, more than anything,” he says. “We’re educating our next generation about where our food comes from because I think our generation has no clue.”
As they say in real estate, it’s all about “location, location, location.” The proximity of a farm to an urban area and ease of access should be top of mind before starting a U-pick, says Sean McCoy, a University of Florida regional Extension agent specializing in rural agri-business development and based in Live Oak.
“One of the most important considerations is being located close to that consumer base, because if it’s hard to get to the farm, it’s hard to get the consumer there,” he says.
For Southern Hill Farms, location isn’t a problem. The farm is situated off two major tollways and within eye sight of Disney World, making it readily accessible to residents of Orlando and nearby cities.
The Hills eased into the U-pick, having invited out friends the past few years to pick fruit at the end of the season.
They also talked to other growers in the area who had opened up to consumers to glean knowledge.
The Hills are starting off small, offering just the U-pick experience as well as blueberry muffins, blueberry preserves, bottled water and t-shirts Saturdays and Sundays during the approximately six-week-long blueberry season. Visitors can choose among 11 different varieties and pick all they want for $4 per pound. Sampling is free.