By JANET McCONNAUGHEY

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Louisiana's strawberry farmers worry that covers spread over their plants for the past week may not be enough to protect tender blossoms and ripening fruit from this week's deep freezes.

Strawberries are Louisiana's leading fruit crop, with a gross farm value of $17.4 million from last year's 397 acres in Tangipahoa and Livingston parishes, according to the the LSU AgCenter.

The Canadian front across the South brought temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s to strawberry fields in Tangipahoa Parish for the past week, so farmers had already spread a light, tight mesh over their rows.

"We just kind of uncover them to pick," said Kevin Liuzza of Independence, who has 95 acres of strawberries.

But this week, temperatures in the mid to upper 20s are expected in both Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes, said Fred Zeigler, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Slidell.

Strawberry farmers used to spray their plants with water when a freeze threatened. But the mesh holds in the heat captured by the earth during the day, and can provide at least four or five degrees of protection, said Regina P. Bracy, an AgCenter professor.

"Last week we got in the upper 20s. It wasn't there for too long, but it was enough," Liuzza said Monday. "Our crop showed that it was much colder than they were talking it was going to get."

Liuzza was also worried about his 150 acres of cabbages -- about three-quarters of Louisiana's total -- grown to sell for New Year's Day, when it's a traditional Southern dish.

"They're sitting under Mother Nature's canopy. Ain't much we can do for them," he said. He said he's talked to cabbage growers in Georgia, and they're all worried that cabbages may be in short supply.

The cold snap followed a dry, warm fall that let growers begin picking their crop in early November.

"Before this, we had probably the best fall I can remember in a long time," said Eric Morrow, who has 15 acres of strawberries in Ponchatoula. He said he's been picking seven days a week for the past month.

"The fruit's large and tasty," he said.

With berries covered, he said, all he can do is keep his fingers crossed and hope for the best.

But, he noted, the cold is good for his 10,000 blueberry trees, which need 300 hours under 45 degrees.

"When we get these deep, good colds like tonight, we get a lot of hours," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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