Cold delays, reduces La. strawberry harvest
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- In between frigid nights, it warmed up enough to harvest strawberries at Kevin and Elizabeth Liuzza's 100-acre farm in Tickfaw, La., about 70 miles northwest of New Orleans. There would have been far more if the weather had just stayed warmer, Elizabeth Liuzza said.
The arctic air mass from Canada, where the Liuzzas get some of their plants, was likely to mean at least one more freezing night in Louisiana, the National Weather Service said. That means plants must be covered.
"The plants will definitely survive," Luizza said. "What we're trying to save is the blooms. Those blooms will develop into berries in 21 days. If we lose those blooms, we're going to lose berry sales for weeks to come.
"Valentine's Day is a big berry-selling time, with chocolate-dipped berries. It's important to us to save those blooms."
Although strawberries are grown across Louisiana, Tangipahoa Parish is the heart of the harvest. It held half the 90 commercial growers and three-quarters of the acreage in 2009, the most recent year for which the LSU AgCenter has figures. Statewide, according to the AgCenter, 397 acres of strawberries produced a gross farm value of $17 million, with $13.8 million of that from Tangipahoa Parish's 300 acres.
The Liuzzas, like many southeast Louisiana farmers, have taken to buying "plugs" -- more mature plants with dirt around the roots -- for fall and winter harvests, as well as the bare-root seedlings that will bear fruit in the spring.
Liuzza said they bought from California and Canada, planted in September and began picking berries in November from the 30 or so acres where they used plugs.
The farm was harvesting 2,000 to 3,000 flats a week for the past couple of weeks. "Now we're down to 1,000 a week. If that," she said. Each flat holds eight one-pound plastic containers.
Eleven miles away in Springfield, Julius "J.C." Blahut, who's been raising berries for 56 years, wasn't worried about February -- just about total damage to the 10 acres of plants at Blahut Strawberry Farm.
"When the weather gets like this, naturally you're going to have some damage," he said. "We won't know how much until we uncover them and the weather gets halfway straight."
He said it takes about five hours to put light mesh over the hoops on his strawberry rows and weight it down with sandbags -- longer if it's windy. "The stuff is very light. It's easy to tear. The wind can take it away from you," he said.
He doesn't plant as early as "some of the boys," he said. "But most of my crop is still in the plant. It's not laying up there, exposed to the weather."
A light wind helped keep Wednesday night's damage to a minimum because it kept frost from building up, Eric Morrow, who used plugs on about two-thirds of his 15 acres in the Ponchatoula area, said Thursday.
When he looked under the row covers, he said, "we had lost a few blooms at the edges. But in the centers, it looked pretty good."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.