Joe Marlin Hilliard was born in Fort Myers, Florida, and grew up in Hendry County, where he graduated from Clewiston High School in 1961. Following graduation, Hilliard began working on Hilliard Brothers Cattle Ranch, which was founded by his grandfather in 1906 and later owned by his father and uncle in the 1920s.
Hilliard implemented numerous innovative practices to propel his operation forward. After joining his uncle and father in managing the ranch, Hilliard developed thousands of acres of native pine and palmetto woods into pasture by allowing farmers to clear and farm the land for two years, then planting improved grass. He also collaborated with UF-IFAS to educate farmers in South Florida about the tropical soda apple weed.
Hilliard was one of the first producers to grow sugarcane on sandy soil. Beginning in 1961, he created research projects with the IFAS Immokalee REC to advance his knowledge on this endeavor, and helped form the South Florida Agricultural Council. Hilliard revolutionized the industry by introducing mechanical harvesting to the area through the Sugarland Harvesting Cooperative, ultimately resulting in an industry-wide adoption of the practice.
Hilliard’s leadership skills have provided major advances in cattle, citrus and sugarcane industries. Hilliard has served as an officer of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, a member of the Florida Citrus Commission and a member of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.