Florida U-Pick farms make changes due to COVID-19 outbreak

Only thing to pick now is your pick-up time

CLERMONT, Fla. – The U-Pick fields at Southern Hill Farms would usually be packed on a nice spring afternoon. Today the sun was shining and a cool breeze blew over the Clermont hills but the fields were empty with the exception of a few workers.

Owner David Hill says he’s had to adjust to a new business model after the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re normally very busy six days a week. Weekends are very crowded. Thousands of people come here,” Hill said.

However, due to the coronavirus outbreak, those crowds are what made the changes necessary. Hill says under the current state guidelines he could allow customers into his fields but keeping people a safe distance apart when they’re on other parts of the property was his concern.

“Right now instead of doing U-pick where everyone is welcome onto the farm, they now drive onto the farm. No one gets out of the car. They order online and pick a time to come,” Hill said.

This loss of business comes at a critical time for blueberry farmers. The harvest season is very short in Florida, lasting from Mid-March to May.

“We’re trying not to go backwards. If we can just hold our own and skip this year we’ll be happy,” Hill said.

To get by he’s relying on the commercial end of his business. Berries will be picked professionally and sent to the packing house eventually making their way to grocery stores.

Hill says orders do continue to come in from loyal customers who are still buying for the same reasons they always have. The farm is a destination. They may not get out of the car but it’s a reason for them to get out of their house.

“This weekend I brought stuff out to a family,” Hill continues. “He said this is the first day in three weeks that my daughters and my wife have been out of the house ... I don’t know if it made me feel good but I was glad that they had a place to go.”

Hill says if there’s a way he can open his fields to customers and allow everyone to keep a safe distance in the store or other gathering places he will.

“The fields are safe. We have 40 acres,” Hill said. “We just need to come up with something to keep everyone separate. Get them in and out without congregating.”

Until then this u-pick is drive thru only.

“Driving on the farm is not a total replacement for picking their own berries but it’s an outlet and they’re happy to do it and we’re happy to be here.”

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