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Weather delays Louisiana strawberries

Published 11:52pm Saturday, January 18, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana strawberries may be scarce and pricey around Valentine’s Day, but the freezes delaying the winter harvest could mean a sweet bounty for Easter and the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival in April.

Mark Liuzza said he double-covered his 30 acres of berries in Amite, setting older torn “blankets” over the newer ones already in the fields, when temperatures dropped into the teens.

“I keep all my old blankets and save ‘em for years like this,” he said.

Strawberries are the state’s most valuable fruit crop. The $14.5 million harvest in 2012 made up nearly 45 percent of the year’s total value from fruit, on 17 percent of the land planted in fruit.

But it’s a local crop, sold locally to grocery chains and at farmers markets and roadside stands. The total acreage — 380 acres in 2012, 350 acres last year, about 285 this year — is minute compared to California, the country’s No. 1 producer, with 38,500 acres in 2012; and Florida, with 8,700 acres.

The 65-acre drop between last year’s and this year’s plantings was largely because of losses from a wet winter a year ago, said Sandra Benjamin, LSU AgCenter agent in Tangipahoa Parish, where most of Louisiana’s strawberries are grown from plants brought in from California, Canada, Michigan and North Carolina.

“I could take this cold weather way better than I could take rain,” said Eric Morrow, who has 10 acres planted in Ponchatoula and sells most of his crop at the Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge. “Once you get the ground wet, it’s hard to get it dried out. … Your roots are not able to breathe.”

He said his plants lost a lot of flowers and a small amount of green fruit, but the chill may prompt the plants to produce better in the spring.

“We’ll have a little slack time the first week or so of February,” he said.

Liuzza, who sells most of his berries through the Rouse’s supermarket chain, said he expects to have some Valentine’s berries if it warms up. He agreed that the later harvest likely will be above average, thanks to the cold.

“It’ll probably be March before we have plenty of berries because we’re having all this cold,” Liuzza said.

The Strawberry Festival is April 11-13 and Easter is April 20.

“We should have plenty of berries for that,” Morrow said.