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.

“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.”


Starting small

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.

For those not wanting to pick their own berries, the Hills sell prepicked fruit for $1 per pound more.

Those prices are a good deal for both visitors and the farm, Michael says.

“The main thing is we don’t have to pay $1 per pound to the harvesting crews, and we don’t have to pay $1 (per pound) for packing and sales commission. So the ($4) is really a good price for us, and it’s a good price for the consumer.”

Plus picking your own blueberries creates priceless experiences and memories, he says.

“You have a real sense of pride if you make a pie to give to somebody else,” Michael says.

Depending on how this season goes, the Hills say they may expand to offer other activities next season.

In preparation for this season, they planted grass on vacant land to create a parking lot. They also built a shade “barn” adjacent to it where visitors can rest out of the sun.

In addition, the farm increased its liability insurance to cover the public visitors – something that McCoy says is important to protect the family farming business.

The Hills have split the chores, with David, Michael and his younger brother Kyle, continuing with the commercial production side. Lisa and daughter-in-law Brooke Hill oversee the U-pick and accompanying promotions.

During the weekend, the entire family helps greet visitors.

Having family members or employees who are outgoing and know marketing can help with a U-pick’s success, McCoy says.

“If you’re not a people person or can’t find a people person to represent your farm, then this is probably not a market sector for your farm to get into,” he says.

Another consideration, McCoy says, is what type of impact having hundreds of visitors wandering around will have on your production.

“If you have 200-300 people out over the weekend, that could cause a little damage to your fields,” he says.

As part of personal introductions, one of the Hills gives a brief history of the farm. He or she then asks visitors to walk down the row middles and not cut between bushes to protect the plants and irrigation systems.


Inexpensive marketing options

Brooke, who used to be a marketer for an Orlando-area hospital, taps into social media for much of the operation’s free or low-cost marketing.

Southern Hill Farms has its own website, Facebook page, blog and Twitter account as well as a weekly seasonal e-newsletter to keep potential visitors up to date on the latest happenings.

Even before blueberry season had arrived, Facebook fans were asking when picking season would begin.

“I really feel good about where we started,” Brooke says. “With social media, like anything else, it takes time to get a following. Once people come out here, hopefully it will grow at even a quicker rate than it has.”

Just before opening weekend in early-April, Brooke boosted a Facebook post for only a few dollars. Boosting a post is a form of informal advertising on Facebook.

Not only did it go to the farms’ 500-plus Facebook fans, but it also went to all of their friends. Within 24 hours, more than 22,000 people had seen the post, Michael says.

Brooke also listed the operation on several free Internet U-pick directories, such www.pickyourown.org or one hosted by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Opening weekend drew more than 1,000 visitors, exceeding the Hills’ expectations, and they sold out of large-sized t-shirts.

Several people blogged or posted about their wonderful experiences, and a few even brought their families back for a second day of fun