A Call to the Country

A Call to the Country

Southern Hill Farms Grows in Popularity as Public Turns Focus to Rural Fun

by TERESA SCHIFFER

Agritoursim has become a big deal to Florida farmers in recent years. Now, more than ever, people are expressing an interest in where their food comes from, how it is grown and prepared, and wanting to pass that knowledge on to their children. Growers and ranchers are taking notice of this trend and opening their fields to the public for u-pick events, festivals, tours, social gatherings, and more. Southern Hill Farms in Clermont is one such farm capitalizing on this newfound fascination with agriculture.

Southern Hill Farms is owned and operated by the Hill family – David and wife Lisa, and their sons, Michael and Kyle, and daughter-in-law, Brooke. The family has farming in their blood; Lisa’s grandfather was growing tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and strawberries in Virginia at the beginning of the 20th century. His youngest son, Billy, migrated down to Central Florida and began growing vegetable crops in Apopka. By the early 2000s, David and Lisa had started their own operation in Clermont growing ornamental trees.

In 2010, the Hills began to diversify their offerings and began planting their fields with blueberries. They only sold the blueberries commercially until 2014, when they decided to open their property up to community events. These days, Southern Hill Farms is known throughout the Central Florida area as the home of a beloved annual Fall Festival, farm market, u-picks, and more.

Normally, the Fall Festival takes place on Wednesdays and weekends throughout October. With current health concerns over COVID-19, it is uncertain whether the Festival will take place this year, but the Hills are hopeful they will be able to host their event and are making plans to take all necessary precautions. This would be the fifth year of the Fall Festival. 

In years past, the Festival has offered live music on the weekends, food trucks, amusement rides, a petting zoo, wagon rides, and a converted cotton picker to carry patrons on a tour of the property. There is fresh sweet corn for sale, as well as Mexican street corn. The barn is filled with pumpkins and charming autumn displays. Fresh, crisp apples are imported from Michigan for sale. The Hills grow fields of sunflowers and zinnias to offer for u-pick sales, which is very popular with visitors. The flowers are also available during the spring u-pick.  

The festival draws quite a crowd, – averaging roughly 8,000 visitors each day. Admission has historically been charged per car, so folks tend to load up the family and arrive in groups. This year, the Hills know that they will have to limit the number of entries in order to allow for appropriate social distancing, so will most likely have to charge admission per person in order to keep an accurate headcount. They have already spaced out the picnic tables in the eating area to give people enough space to safely enjoy their food. 

 

David Hill describes the value of drawing in tourists to his farm: “Agritourism is becoming a bigger deal now, and more people are doing it. There’s a local push, where people want to know where their food comes from, they want to see the farm, they even want to get to know the farmer. It’s really changed over the last 20 to 30 years, when you didn’t get that sense. Now, people want to come to the farm, they want to show their kids the crops, and they love going out there and picking them with their hands.” 

The Hills are taking full advantage of this trend in agritourism, and they are in a prime location to do so. Southern Hill Farms is just a 20-minute drive from downtown Orlando, making it a fun place to go not just for the locals, but for the tourists who flock to Central Florida every year. David Hill comments that many families that visit their annual Fall Festival do so every year, and delight in the tradition that the Hills have inspired.

He acknowledges that there are some pitfalls associated with opening up a farm to agritourism. Hill was initially very apprehensive about opening up Southern Hill Farms to blueberry u-picks, citing liability concerns. Over the years since they began welcoming the public onto their property, there have been a few minor incidents, but nothing the Hills couldn’t handle. “It’s a lot of hard work,” Lisa Hill says. “It’s not for the faint of heart. There are a lot of moving pieces to it. All of our family is involved in it.”

Lisa and David both feel very blessed by the successes they’ve had at Southern Hill Farms over the years, and they are thankful for having the help and support of their family in their efforts. They love having the opportunity to expand their farm and welcome the public in to see the crops growing and to learn firsthand what the agricultural lifestyle is all about. 

Besides the cheerful flowers, the Hills also offer peaches, blueberries, and strawberries in the springtime for u-picks. They are only just starting to offer the strawberries, and plan on adding three fields (about 18 to 20 acres) of the sweet treats to offer for the spring 2021 season. For more information on the events offered at Southern Hill Farms, visit SouthernHillFarms.com.