William D. “Billy” Long came to Florida in 1952 with $2,000 and a John Deere tractor. Twenty-five years later he had revolutionized the way Florida farmers produce and harvest their crops. His innovations made Florida’s agriculture industry more productive and more profitable, and his unbridled enthusiasm for Florida farming inspired legions of younger growers.
As a young graduate of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Long was enticed by the fact that in Florida a farmer can grow crops all year round. He leased 60 acres in the Zellwood Drainage District near Lake Apopka and started his first crop of sweet corn. The 1953 corn season was one of the best on record, with good yields and good prices. Long’s crop was outstanding, and with the profits he was able to purchase his uncle’s farm nearby. Long’s farm grew to be one of the largest, most diverse and well-managed farms in the area.
Long became an innovator of farming techniques and developed a special knack for selecting new varieties of vegetables that were especially well-suited to central Florida. He worked closely with sweet-corn breeders, growing more trial plantings on his farm than any other grower in the United States. In 1960 he introduced Harris Seed Company’s “Gold Cup” sweet corn to Zellwood and Florida. “Gold Cup” became the industry standard and was eventually grown on over 85 percent of the sweet-corn acreage in the state.
Long’s inventiveness revolutionized harvesting techniques and helped make Florida agriculture more efficient. He worked with corn harvester Jim Moody to design and build one of the first in-the-field mobile packing houses. Later he helped build a mechanical corn-picking device that became known as “The Sunshine Machine.” Variations of these designs are still being used today.
Long was one of the first farmers to grow carrots on the Zellwood muck lands. By 1980 he owned one of the largest carrot packing houses in the Southeast and was shipping his carrots all over the world. In the wake of the devastating freezes that crippled Central Florida’s citrus industry in the mid-1980s, he helped form a carrot-concentrate co-op, one of his greatest achievements. Citrus-concentrate plants throughout the area were sitting idle, so Long and his neighboring farmers revamped a plant in Eustis, creating the first carrot-concentrate plant in the United States. Their product was a primary ingredient in Campbell’s V-8 Splash.
Long has generously shared his agricultural expertise with the industry and his community. He served on the Orange County Air and Water Pollution Control Board and the Orange County Agricultural Advisory Board. He has been active in the Farm Foundation and the Zellwood Drainage and Water Control District. A leader in the Florida Farm Bureau, he has served as an officer, director and past president of the Orange County Farm Bureau. He was appointed to the Governor’s Migratory Labor Committee and the University of Florida SHARE Council.
Long’s leadership and expertise in agriculture have won him numerous awards and honors. In 1965 he was named Outstanding Young Farmer of the United States by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, and in 1968 he received the Ford Foundation Farm Efficiency Award. The State of Florida named him the Lancaster Sunbelt Expo Southern Farmer of the Year in 1994. For the past 11 years he has been recognized as one of the top 100 vegetable growers in the United States by American Vegetable Growers magazine.
Long and his wife, Bobbie, live in Apopka. They have three grown children, Lisa, Bo and Bill Jr.