Despite recent cold snap, La. strawberries off to fast start

Regina P. Bracy, Morgan, Johnny W.  |  1/22/2009 1:40:18 AM

William Fletcher, a Ponchatoula strawberry grower, examines fresh-picked berries before heading to market. He said his crop is coming in earlier this year because of the new way the berries are planted. (Photo by Johnny Morgan. Click on image for downloadable photo.)

News Release Distributed 01/21/09

New planting techniques have Louisiana strawberries coming in earlier this year despite recent cold snaps.

Cold weather has slowed down strawberry production lately, but growers are using row covers to minimize damage to the crop, said Regina Bracy, resident coordinator at the LSU AgCenter’s Hammond Research Station in Hammond.

Bracy said temperatures have not stayed low for long periods, and this is saving the berries from damage.

“The 60- and 70-degree weather we had a few weeks ago, along with the new ways of planting berries, is a combination that’s causing local growers to generate some sales nearly two months earlier than they have in the past,” she said.

“Our growers are now receiving plants grown in cell packs like tomatoes and some other vegetable plants,” Bracy said. This combination began generating sales nearly two months earlier than in past years.

This type of “plug planting” allows the plants to get started faster than bare-root transplants and helps with disease suppression, she said.

Ponchatoula-area growers Eric Morrow and William Fletcher have adopted this new planting technique in their operations and are impressed with the results.

“We started picking on Nov. 7, and we’ve been picking some nice berries with great flavor,” Morrow said, who grows eight acres of strawberries.

Morrow said he lost some blooms with the latest freeze but still expects his crop to peak around Valentine’s Day and continue to produce through Mother’s Day.

Louisiana strawberry growers tout the fact that their berries have earned a reputation for being the best in the country. The reason is they are picked fresh and sold to the customer that same day, Morrow said.

“Our berries are not supercooled and trucked 1,000 miles to sit in a warehouse before going to a store,” he said.

Like most other strawberry growers in the area, Morrow and Fletcher say they have something growing on their farms 12 months a year.

“Strawberries are my main crop, accounting for about 75 percent of my farm income, but when we’re not in berries, I raise whatever’s in season,” said Fletcher, who has 5 1/2 acres of strawberries. “Springtime, we’ll do tomatoes, snap beans and eggplant. Summertime, we’ll get into watermelons, cantaloupe, purple hull peas and that sort of thing.”

Fletcher said he’ll grow mustard and turnip greens, pumpkins and sweet potatoes in the fall.

Fletcher, who grew up on the farm, moved away for five years after graduating from LSU.

“I went to work in the mortgage industry because I thought I wanted something more suit-and-tie,” he said. “But, I was never happy. So in 1998, I moved from Florida back to Louisiana because I had an opportunity to start farming, and they had a place for me at the Red Stick Farmers Market.”

The Red Stick Farmers Market is in Baton Rouge.

Fletcher said as he heads toward the peak of the season, he’ll begin picking every day.

Bracy said Louisiana growers have learned that plug plants grow faster, although they are a little more expensive.

“With this new planting technique, growers make money on the early crop, which allows them to extend their season,” she said.

A large number of older growers left the business after Hurricane Katrina, Bracy said, “But now the number of growers has tended to stabilize.”

She said the strawberry industry in the Tangipahoa area at one time had thousands of acres and hundreds of farmers, but the number is now down to about 300 acres and 50 farmers.

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Contact: Regina Bracy at (985) 543-4125 or rbracy@agcenter.lsu.edu  

Writer: Johnny Morgan at (225) 578-84848 or jmorgan@agcenter.lsu.edu


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