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Rain, low temps slow strawberry production

Before recent rains and low temperatures, many of Louisiana's strawberry growers were looking forward to an above-average crop.

The cold, wet weather in south Louisiana has slowed the ripening process, said Regina Bracy, LSU AgCenter professor and research coordinator of the LSU AgCenter's Hammond Research Station.

“Berries will be in shorter supply until warmer weather prevails,” Bracy said. “The weather is a potential problem for this year's crop. Persistent damp weather could increase disease.”

So far, production has been good and the quality has been excellent, Bracy said. The growers depend on the early crop to make their money while the prices are high and the competition from Florida and California is not as fierce.

“Some growers have been picking since before Christmas,” Bracy said.

Sandra Benjamin, the LSU AgCenter county agent in Tangipahoa Parish, said about 80 percent of the growers have had an early crop this year.

To combat the low temperatures, strawberry growers use sprinklers and row coverings to make sure strawberry blooms aren't lost during freezing temperatures.

Row covers made of a light woven material, are used to cover the strawberry fields to protect blooms from freezing temperature. The covers “float” over the strawberry plants and provide a 4- to 5-degree increase over outside air temperatures. When temperatures drop below about 23 degrees F, Bracy said, farmers can use sprinklers to provide additional cold protection.

“Once the temperature gets to the freezing mark, freezing water gives off heat and keeps the strawberry blooms from freezing,” she said.

When the sprinklers are used, they have to stay on until the ice thaws — or the plants will dehydrate and die.

Bracy said using water to protect the crop from freezing temperatures is not what the farmers want to do because it's expensive. The process can require a large amount of water and isn't the best thing for the strawberry plants.

An advantage of cold weather is that the plants will put on more fruit and flowers, even if those that are on the plant die because of the freezing temperatures, Bracy said.

Even though Louisiana growers market their berries as the best in the world, the number of growers and acres planted continue to decline. Tangipahoa is still the leading strawberry-producing parish with 320 acres of berries.

Most of the state's strawberries are marketed locally, with some going to wholesale outlets. The balance is sold at roadside stands and farmers' markets.

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