HAMMOND, La. — This year’s Louisiana strawberry crop started coming in a little earlier than usual, and officials say the state’s farmers are hoping for a good crop.

“The farmers are pushing their strawberries by using techniques such as row covers to make them come in earlier,” said Regina Bracy, who conducts research on strawberries and is the resident coordinator of the LSU AgCenter’s Hammond Research Station.

Bracy said the crop this year is off to an excellent start.

“Quality has been good and disease problems have been low because we’ve had mild and dry weather,” Bracy said, adding, “Farmers and consumers win when the crop comes in early.

“The farmers are happy because of the price that they get when they have berries in December, January and February, and the consumers are happy because some of them served Louisiana strawberries as part of their holiday dinner.”

The LSU AgCenter researcher said one reason for the early crop is that there has been little significantly cold weather this year. The other reason is the use of the row coverings.

Among the types used by farmers are plastic mulch row coverings — a black polyethylene mulch that covers the row. “When the sun hits that material, it absorbs the heat and keeps the soil warm, maintains moisture and helps eliminate weeds,” Bracy explained.

Farmers also use a cloth-type cover, which is made from a white woven material. “It just floats on top of the row and allows water and air to penetrate, but it’s sufficient enough to maintain some of that warm temperature that’s in the soil,” Bracy said. “It helps to keep the heat close to the plants and gives protection of 4 to 6 degrees above the outside temperature.”

In the past, farmers sprayed water on top of their strawberries to provide protection, but row covers have made that practice less common.

“As the water freezes, it releases heat, and that is how they would protect their plants from severe cold,” Bracy said of the older method. “Now they use the row covers, because they are better for the plants.”

In addition, not using water for freeze protection means farmers aren’t flooding their fields, which can increase disease problems. They also get better quality fruit from methods that don’t require the excessive amounts of water.

Bracy said that the number of Louisiana strawberry farmers seems to have stabilized over the past few years.

“We have some young farmers coming into family businesses, which is good to see, but some of our older farmers are retiring and are not being replaced.”

Bracy said there are about 75 strawberry farms in the area of Livingston, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes. She said the farms range from small to large, but that planted acreage is down across the board.

According to Bracy, there has been a shift away from producing plants in Louisiana because of problems with anthracnose or “crown rot” as it is commonly called. Bracy said most of the plants grown in Louisiana now come from California, Michigan and Canada.

Strawberries can be planted as early as late September, but most are planted in October, according to Bracy. “In Louisiana we grow them as an annual crop, but places like California get three harvest seasons off one plant.”

Bracy said the major competition Louisiana farmers face comes from farmers in California and Florida. Weather in those states determines when the competition will begin. Those berries generally start coming into the state during the first of March.

Farmers in the Tangipahoa, La., area said the price of berries to consumers in late January was about $2 a pint or $24 per flat.

Louisiana farmers produced strawberries worth an on-farm value of more than $6.2 million last year — down from $8.7 million in 2002.

Johnny Morgan (225-578-8484 or jmorgan@agcenter.lsu.edu) writes for the LSU AgCenter.