La. strawberry crop hurt by icy January

Rhonda Poché searched her strawberry fields Friday afternoon, trying to spot all of the berries and blooms damaged by the icy weather conditions in southeast Louisiana.

“I’m seeing a lot more bad blooms than I thought I saw,” Poché, owner of Landry-Poché Strawberry Farm near La. 42 in Springfield, said as she eyed her plants closely.

LSU AgCenter officials say the state’s strawberries, unlike other crops and agricultural commodities, took a particularly hard hit during the winter storm earlier this week and could lose roughly 15 to 20 percent of their yield this year.

Poché and other strawberry farmers in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes said the losses will be tough, but the farmers also predicted their fields would rebound just fine.

“It is not that huge of a loss,” Poche said as she surveyed her fields. “The plants are not dead.”

The plants that produce strawberries usually are planted in late September or early October, said Regina Bracy, director of the LSU AgCenter’s southeast region in Hammond. Those plants produce blooms, which then produce the berries themselves.

The blooms generally provide plentiful fruit in March, but some Louisiana farmers might start picking berries in November or December if the weather is mild enough. The last three years, Bracy said, mild temperatures in Louisiana have allowed strawberry farmers to pick fairly frequently in December.

But farmers picked little this December and January, and February may be slim as well, she said.

The recent freezing weather — perhaps about the worst for the strawberry farms in 10 years — wiped out a significant amount of blooms and berries that had already grown. But the plants survived and can reproduce more berries later.

“They may have lost 20 percent of their crop,” Bracy said. “But the plants will continue to produce fruit, and it’s just delaying it a little later in the season.”

Strawberry farming, similar to sugar cane, has a sizeable footprint on Louisiana’s agricultural industry.

In 2012, 74 strawberry growers in Louisiana on 380 acres of land produced a gross farm value of $15.6 million, according to the LSU AgCenter’s 2012 Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources. In 2011, that figure was $6.8 million.

Tangipahoa Parish led the way with 300 acres producing $12.1 million in sales in 2012.

Louisiana farmers generally make about $6 million to $8 million selling their berries to third parties. She said it’s too early to predict any kind of economic impact the strawberry losses will have, though she said local farmers would suffer the most.

“They’ll lose some yield, and they’re losing their early market, so that’s going to cost them some,” Bracy said.

Louisiana strawberry farmers usually compete with Florida farmers for the early strawberry market. Louisiana farmers hope this year to wait for Florida berries to enter and exit the market, allowing Louisiana berries to slip in later in the season without as much competition.

“Hopefully, it’ll keep the price good,” Bracy said. “We won’t know about that until later in the season.”

At the Landry-Poché farm, workers picked strawberries from dozens of rows and packed them into flats for shipping.

But far more were covered with protective blankets, more commonly known as “row covers,” to protect them from the freeze.

There’s little the farmers can do when cold strikes, Bracy said.

Farmers used to sprinkle their plants with water to fight off the cold, Bracy said. The water would freeze and give off heat, which can protect the plants a little bit. But farmers discovered years ago that the row covers were more effective.

William Fletcher, owner of Fletcher Farm in Ponchatoula and a member of the Louisiana Strawberry Marketing Board, said the strawberry plants only have to be covered if there’s a threat of frost. This January, his plants have had little chance to be uncovered.

The covers do allow water, air and sunlight to go in, “but they don’t really thrive under it,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said the January weather has been “ferocious” for his farm. He said he doesn’t expect to pick any berries for weeks, possibly longer.

“What’s on them right now is gone,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher, though, said the cold weather actually can rejuvenate the crops a little. The cold weather slows down production, which can give the plants a break from production. It also gives them a chance to produce more leaves.

Fletcher remained optimistic that Louisiana will still have a great strawberry season once the weather warms up later in the year. It’ll just be a shorter one.

“We’ll be in and out in two months,” Fletcher joked.

Heather Hughes, owner of Mrs. Heather’s Strawberry Patch in Albany, expressed optimism with her plants.

“The ones that we had covered, they’re still pretty and green,” she said. “The frost itself doesn’t kill the plant. It just kills the bloom.”

The situation at Hughes’ farm is a little different, though, because it’s a “you pick” farm — groups of people can pay to come to the farm to pick their own berries.

Hughes said their berries also grow a little later in the season, so the early cold weather likely won’t have as much of an impact. She said her farm doesn’t pick until sometime in the spring.

“We don’t try to get ours early,” she said.