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• 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.
BLUEBERRIES REQUIRED a learning curve for Michael Hill, who farms with his father, David, a few miles outside Clermont, Fla.
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.”