Dipping temps delay berry crop

With temperatures falling below the freezing mark on parts of the Northshore, area strawberry farmers were busy this past weekend protecting the popular crop.

“We covered them last night, and we didn’t uncover them today,” Heather Robertson, of Johndales Strawberry Farm in Ponchatoula, said Sunday of the blooms on the 15-acre strawberry farm.

With temperatures dipping in the 20s, blanketing the berries is the best way to protect them from the freezing temperatures, Robertson said.

“Anytime it gets 32 degrees or below, they have to be covered,” she said. “Or we take a chance that the blooms will freeze.”

Growers use row covers to contain the heat that accumulates in the ground and keep it over the berries. Robertson said she and her family blanketed their berries Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and were continuing to keep a close eye on the forecast.

The recent cold snap will cause this year’s strawberry crop to come in a little later, but it’s still too early to tell just how the cold weather will affect the abundance of this year’s crop, said Mark Liuzza, of Jack Liuzza and Son Produce in Amite.

Liuzza, who said he covered berries on his family’s 30-acre farm on Friday before the rain started, doesn’t believe Saturday night’s freezing temperatures hurt his crop but admits the continued cold weather and rain are a problem.

Robertson agreed.

“It slows down the growth of the berry,” Robertson said.

It takes 21 days from flower to berry, she said. If farmers lose all of their flowers and berries at this time, they will not have another crop for 21 days.

“We’re still picking; we’re just not picking the amount that we should be,” Liuzza said.

During a relatively warm winter, Liuzza said, they pick the berries every other day, but during colder winters, they pick them every five to six days, leaving less of a crop.

The peak season for Louisiana strawberries is usually in March and April, but farmers receive more money for their crop earlier in the season. So the prime time for the farmers is November, December and January.

Saturday night made the fifth time in 2012 that Robertson has had to blanket the berry plants. While freezing temperatures were not in the forecast on some of those cold nights, Robertson said they covered the berries as a precaution.

“It’s worse than last year,” she said of the cold weather, “and there has been so much rain.”

Robertson said the rain can cause the ripe berries on the plants to “bust” if they are not picked in time.

Colder winters also make raising the crop more labor intensive for the farmers, who must watch the forecast closely and cover the crop more often.

“We used to sprinkle them with water,” Liuzza said. “But blanketing them is much better on the crop.”

As water freezes, it gives off heat, so applying water to the berries keeps the temperature of the fruit and the flowers above freezing, he said.

While it may be too early to tell just how the cold temperatures will affect this year’s crop, Liuzza said one thing is certain: people should buy Louisiana berries.

“They are all the same as long as they come from Louisiana,” he said.

“They’re better, they’re fresher and they’re local,” Robertson said.