Louisiana strawberry growers expect some damage to the crop and potential loss in production this week as nighttime temperatures fell below 28 degrees, according to industry experts.

This year’s strawberry crop had been making good progress until the recent cold temperatures, according to Regina Bracy, LSU AgCenter horticulturist and resident coordinator at the Hammond Research Station.

“Cold weather slows the ripening process of strawberries,” Bracy said. “So there will be fewer strawberries taken to market until the weather warms up.”

With temperatures falling below freezing this week, producers must take action to protect berries from damage.

“Farmers will be covering strawberry plants with floating row covers, adding labor and materials costs to the farmers’ production cost,” Bracy said.

Before the recent cold spell, growers were picking an earlier than normal crop, with some berries coming in as early as October.

“Using plug transplants instead of bare-root transplants has resulted in earlier yields,” Bracy said. ”Plugs recover faster from transplanting stress, so they produce berries faster than bare-root transplants.”

Heather Robertson, a Ponchatoula grower had an early crop but is aware of the downside of picking early.

“We plant from plugs, which gave us an early crop,” Robertson said. “But we have to cover the berries a lot because of the cold weather, which is an added expense.”

Robertson and her husband planted about 17 acres of strawberries this year, and she said so far her crop has been a better than last year.

“Last year we had a really cold winter, and that was bad for the berries (Cold weather slows Louisiana strawberries).” she said. “But up to this point, the weather has been good for us.”

Eric Morrow of Ponchatoula planted about 15 acres of berries this year and said he picked his first berries on Oct. 29.

“We should have a good year, with lots of berries for Valentine’s Day if the weather is not too bad,” Morrow said.

Many growers this year planted Strawberry Festival, a variety they have been growing for many years, Bracy said.

Farmers also are planting much earlier in the season so harvest begins earlier, Bracy explained. “Farmers also use row covers that maintain warmer temperatures around the plant during colder weather.”

Strawberries are grown in many parishes throughout state, but commercial production mainly occurs in Tangipahoa Parish.

According to the Louisiana Ag Summary, the Louisiana strawberry industry involves 90 growers who produced strawberries with a gross farm value of $17 million on 400 acres in 2009.

Johnny Morgan