Strawberry crop coming early, looking good

(01/15/21) BATON ROUGE, La. — Despite the recent cold snap, Louisiana strawberries are coming in at a steady clip.

LSU AgCenter agent Mary Helen Ferguson said the producers are off to a good start this season, with no extreme temperatures so far.

“You should be able to find berries at a few locations now and that will increase over the coming weeks,” she said. “The growers I’ve talked to seem pretty satisfied with how things are going.”

Experts with the AgCenter say favorable weather and new strawberry varieties are helping farmers start bringing the crop in earlier than in past years.

In the past, when the farmers planted different varieties, they normally would start to pick in January or February and expect the crop to last from six weeks to two months. But with the new varieties they now plant, the farmers start picking in November and expect to have strawberries through mid-May.

Independence grower Dale Carona said he’s been in the strawberry business since 1985 and is continuing a family tradition that he began with his father until he retired.

He said many local growers start picking a few berries around Thanksgiving, but it’s not many. They normally see an increase in January, but that depends on what the low temperatures are.

“The recent cold snap shouldn’t be enough to cause much damage,” he said. “But once the temperature gets down to 15 and 16 degrees, that hurts us four to six weeks down the road.”

That’s because it takes 21 days from flower to berry. So if the growers lose all of their flowers and berries at this time, then they will not have another crop for 21 days, he said.

This also means growers won’t have any income during that time. In addition, cold weather adds to growers’ expenses because they have to cover the rows to try to protect the plants and possibly apply water at night.

Strawberry farmers start planting their crop in late September or early October and are at the height of production from March to May.

The number of growers in the state continues to dwindle, Ferguson said. “We have about 10 or 11 growers in Tangipahoa Parish that I’m aware of, and about five in Livingston Parish.”

“I’m not aware of any major problems with the crop so far this season,” she added. “The growers I’ve talked to seem pretty satisfied with how things are going.”

Louisiana’s climate allows growers who cover their plants with row covers on cold nights to pick some berries, during what would otherwise be the off-season.

“Strawberry plants are cold hardy enough to tolerate even the coldest temperatures we typically experience, but open flowers are killed at temperatures a little below freezing,” she said. “Covering the plants on cold nights allows flowers to survive and produce fruit.”

Strawberry production in the state has been on the decline for the past decade, mainly due to a shortage of labor, urbanization and farmers advancing in age.

According to the LSU AgCenter’s 2018 Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Louisiana strawberry industry involved 47 commercial growers who produced berries on 218 acres for a gross farm value of $8.74 million.

Freshly picked strawberries.

Fresh strawberries have been slowly coming in for the past two months. But growers say that will increase soon if they can avoid extremely low January temperatures. Photo by Johnny Morgan/LSU AgCenter

Workers picking strawberries.

Workers quickly picking strawberries in Eric Morrow’s field near Ponchatoula. Growers say they have been slowly ramping up production since around Thanksgiving. Photo by Johnny Morgan/LSU AgCenter

1/15/2021 9:30:08 PM
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