After Florida’s buyout of farmson Lake Apopka in 1998 David and Michael Hill could have waved goodbye to farming forever. The Lake Apopka Restoration Act, signed into law by Gov. Lawton Chiles, aimed at making the lake waters pristine once again. The way to do it, of course, was to give farmers the boot.

David Hill farmed that rich muck soil with his father-in-law, Billy Long, with 1,000 acres of carrots, radishes, sweet corn and other crops. Just about everyone in Florida agriculture knew of Billy Long’s exploits at Lake Apopka. After moving there in 1953, he became a top sweet corn grower, introducing new varieties that revolutionized the business.

Long grew some of the first carrots in the Lake Apopka area and owned a large packinghouse that shipped the product around the world. He was instrumental in forming a carrot concentrate co-op, which established the first carrot concentrate plant in the U.S. at Eustis.

In 1965, the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce named Billy Long the nation’s outstanding young farmer. He served on many advisory committees, including those established by the governor of Florida.

But in 1998, the state told Billy Long and David Hill to shut it all down. Seven years later, Long was inducted into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame, and continued farming and partnered on another farm at Stuart, Fla. Hill moved on and looked for something different in agriculture, yet with profit potential.

Now, Hill farms with his 25-year-old son, Michael, on high sandy ground outside Clermont, surrounded by orange trees. You won’t find citrus on their place, though — when they moved here and left everything behind in Zellwood they put their money into landscaping trees.

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A new beginning

“We sold everything when we left the muck farm — every tractor, every plow, everything,” says David Hill. “I wanted something that didn’t require a packinghouse and a fleet of tractors.

“By growing a higher-value crop, I could do it with a lot less land. Growing trees offered a way to get in. There are 180 acres here and we put 120 acres in trees. We were looking for land with ag potential. This is sugar sand, the driest stuff you’ll ever see. We got the last tract of land in Water Conserve II, with access to reclaimed water from Orlando.”

The Hills first planted holly trees.Since then they’ve added a wide range of landscaping plants: crepe myrtle, red maple, magnolia, cypress and others. Just about when things got rolling well, the hurricanes of 2004-2005 hit, followed by the housing crash brought on by the economic recession.

All the while, they’d been watching the blueberry business springing up around them in central Florida and decided to try 20 acres of the crop. That required a good deal of preparatory work, which Michael began soon after graduating from Auburn University with an agricultural economics degree. In college he took few horticulture courses, so he began a full-tilt self-education to learn about blueberries.

Since blueberries do poorly in sandy soil, he brought in pine bark mulch for bedding, The pH here runs as high as 7.0, but blueberries prefer a pH under 5.0. Even the water here has a pH of about 7.0.

“Maintaining pH is critical,”Michael says. “The plants can’t get the right growth without it.”

Drip and overhead irrigation

He dug ditches for irrigation pipe. The blueberries have both drip irrigation at ground level and overhead irrigation, primarily intended for freeze protection.

“Drip gives better, more efficient water retention and gets better horizontal movement of water,” he says.

Michael started young plants in a greenhouse, then transplanted them to the field, where they quickly took off. Now pushing two years of age, they’re vigorous and healthy, and even produced some crop this year.

Growing blueberries required the acquisition of new skills, including how to work with hydrogen cyanamide, which is very toxic to humans. He explains that the chemical, “tricks the plant into thinking it has gone dormant,” in Florida’s warm climate, dropping leaves and putting on new ones a short time later. This enables it to hit the late-March through April market window.

“It has to be sprayed with the right mixture of water, at a certain temperature, when there’s no wind and no wet leaves. We have to really watch what’s going on with it.

“That’s been the biggest learning curve we’ve faced. No one in the industry can tell the exact time to do it. Every variety reacts differently to the chemical. That’s why we’ve separated varieties by rows. That’s the most important and critical thing.” It’s necessary, he says, to do a decent job with hydrogen cyanamide or the crop’s harvest timing could be seriously wrong.

“The blueberry industry here exists because of that market window — in that time period is all of Florida’s blueberry market.”

Things look promising enough in Florida’s blueberry world for them to put an additional 20 acres into the crop, although neither of the Hills expects the recent high blueberry prices enjoyed by Florida growers to continue long-term. They’re getting in position to be profitable even when prices drop,

“We don’t want to get in over our heads,” Michael says, “but we want enough acres so we can still make money even with lower margins. We don’t expect ridiculously high prices to continue long. I’m glad we didn’t put in all 40 acres at one time because there is a lot to learn about blueberries. I’ve learned a lot — but I think I have a lot more to go.”

Expects quick change

He expects the blueberry industry itself to change relatively quickly, as well.

“I think within five yearsthe Florida industry will be close to machine harvesting of the blueberry crop,” he says. “To do that, we’re going to have to develop varieties with strong skin. We’re still a few years away from a good machine harvestable variety.

“We just planted ours and they’re in for 10 years. They won’t get into full production until the third or fourth year. It would be hard to pull them out for another variety because we have a lot of front-end money in them, and there’d be all that lost time.”

Michael seems surprised when asked why he came back here to farm rather than to pursuing a corporate position after college graduation.

“This is what I wanted to do,” he says. “I’m happy here. Absolutely. Besides, working in an office all day would drive me stir-crazy. I put in the irrigation pipe, I dug the trenches, I worked with the bushes in the greenhouse, and then planted them. Now look at them — there’s no better feeling than to look back at what you’ve done and see that it worked.”

His father is glad Michael made that decision.

“He wanted to be in farming, and I certainly wanted to farm with him. Everything was just right for him to come back,” David says.

“It’s a problem when a farmer has nobody in the family to take over the farm. It’s a worse problem when a child wants to come back to the farm and there’s nothing for him to do. We had plenty here for Michael to do.”