The recent warm days and chilly nights have been near perfect for this year's strawberry crop, according to the LSU AgCenter's Regina Bracy, who says the 2004 crop is off to a good start but could be slowed a little by the recent cold snap.
“We actually had some farmers who were picking berries before Christmas this year, which means that they will get a bumper price for their crop,” said Bracy, who conducts research on strawberries and is the research coordinator of the LSU AgCenter's Hammond Research Station.
Many farmers in south Louisiana use two basic methods — sprinklers and row coverings — to make sure strawberry plants aren't lost during freezing temperature. But cold like that seen around the first of the year still can slow production.
“The farmers use the sprinklers to cover the plants with water before the temperature gets below freezing,” Bracy explained.
“Once the temperature gets down to freezing, the ice gives off heat and keeps the plants from freezing to death.”
When the sprinklers are used, they have to stay on until the ice thaws — or the plants will dehydrate and die, Bracy added.
If the temperature stays above 25 degrees, Bracy said, many strawberry farmers will use row coverings instead of sprinklers. But when temperatures drop below the 25-degree mark, sprinklers and row coverings are likely to be used, she said.
The recent cold snap in the Hammond area only brought temperatures down to 27 degrees, so most of the farmers used only row coverings.
Bracy said that was good for farmers, since using water to protect the crop is relatively costly, can require a large amount of water and isn't the best thing for the strawberry plants.
In addition, Bracy said, more farmers are using row coverings now because water can go through it and air can penetrate it, but it's enough of a barrier that it maintains the heat from the soil.
“The covering usually protects the plant about 4 to 6 degrees from the ambient temperature. So if it's 32 degrees outside, then we're saying under the row covering it will be anywhere from 34 to 38 degrees,” she explained.
Bracy said the good thing about strawberries is that the cold just slows production. The plants will put on more fruit and flowers, even if those that are on the plant dies because of the freezing temperatures.
Strawberry production in the state is conducted on about 300 to 400 acres — primarily in Tangipahoa Parish. While total strawberry production was down slightly in 2002, the gross farm income of $8.7 million generated by the crop was up about 3 percent from the 2001 level.
Bracy said the major competition Louisiana farmers face comes from those in California and Florida. Weather in those states determines when the competition will begin, she said.
“Those berries generally start coming into the state during the first of March, so Louisiana farmers could still have about two months of production before the competition gets stiff,” Bracy said.
Johnny Morgan (225-578-8484 or firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for the LSU AgCenter.