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U-pick to thru-pick: How one Central Florida farm transformed their harvest into a pandemic-friendly operation

Family-run farm modifies services amid COVID-19 pandemic

CLERMONT, Fla. – The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the nation, preying on small businesses. Farmers and those in the agriculture industry have had a tough go as their businesses were badly bruised by lack of demand and manpower to safely get produce to stores.

Southern Hill Farms, located along the bumpy clay backroads of Clermont, nearly lost its entire season of the u-pick harvest due to the pandemic, but with some innovation and a multi-generational support system, the family farm was able to transform its entire business model.

David and Lisa Hill began Southern Hill Farms by planting landscaping trees but quickly expanded their operation by growing blueberries, peaches, sunflowers, zinnias, strawberries and sweet corn. The pair realized their operation far surpassed just the produce they grew, recognizing that visitors loved the experience of just being on the farm itself.

When the coronavirus pandemic made its way to Florida, first being detected in the state March 1, the Hills were about a week away from opening their u-pick season. Under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order to shutter non-essential businesses, u-pick farms would have been allowed to operate, but the Hill’s decided there was too much risk involved in allowing the large amount of visitors their farm was accustomed to.

So in an effort to keep their family and visitors safe, the Hills forfeited their traditional u-pick season.

“It was a difficult decision,” David Hill said. “When we decided not to do the u-pick, we had to do something, because if not we would lose the whole year.”

The Hills solution? Transform their farm into a drive-thru operation where customers could order their produce online and pick it up at the farm without leaving their cars.

“We had to try to incorporate a way where (customers) could see everything and try to get the farm experience inside their car,” David Hill said.

The synthesis of the operation took the entire family-run business to get up and running.

Rachael Criswell, operations and education director at Southern Hill Farms, played a big role in getting the drive-thru up and running, as well as troubleshooting issues with the new system as they arose.

“We took everything day by day, and we had to adjust inventories and there were some glitches in the system that we definitely weren’t prepared for,” Criswell said. “It was a learning curve for all of us for sure.”

The Hills aren’t sure if they will continue to incorporate the drive-thru model into their typical business structure but said they would consider it.

Criswell said that the drive-thru provided a safe way for people to get out of their homes and change up their daily routines during quarantine, adding that feedback from customers has been exceptionally positive.

“This was kind of their way to (take a) field trip and to get out,” Criswell said. “Obviously everyone would rather be here spending their time actually picking, but everyone is thankful that we are doing this and taking the safest route possible for the amount of volume of people that we have.”

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