BATON ROUGE -- LSU AgCenter researchers are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure Louisiana strawberry farmers don't have the same problems with this year's strawberry crop that they saw last year.
Strawberry producers last year found themselves spending much of what would have been their profits on the costs of replanting - after many of them received and planted what appeared to be diseased plants.
Regina Bracy, an LSU AgCenter professor at the Hammond Research Station, said plants many farmers bought and originally planted last year were infected with the anthracnose organism.
"At the time that we found the problem, anthrax was big in the news and we had to make sure that we carefully said an-thrac-nose," Bracy said, explaining the two organisms and the reasons they were making news were not related.
The LSU AgCenter researcher also said it took a while to diagnose a problem or to find a source - since growers were buying their plants from various nurseries in Michigan and California.
"The plants started dying in the field from this disease, and we thought that it was phytophthora crown rot, but closer observation showed that to be only a part of the problem," Bracy said, explaining phytophthora had been a problem in the berries the year before and was found on last year's crop.
But the real damage last year was coming from anthracnose, according to Bracy.
"We found the plants were coming from cooler climates where the organism was dormant until it hit our warm climate and then the disease became active," she said.
Bracy said LSU AgCenter researchers are conducting fungicide evaluation tests this year to determine the most effective means of controlling such problems. And many of the farmers in the Tangipahoa area are trying to get an earlier start on their planting.
"The nurseries have leftover plants from last year that have been in cold storage for the past eight months, and our producers planted those plants in August to see if they could get a crop harvested by Christmas," Bracy said, adding that strawberries normally are planted mid-to-late October with an anticipated harvest in mid-February.
Tangipahoa Parish producer James Morrow, who helps his son, Eric, in the operation of his farm, said they are trying some new things this year.
"Last year we lost about 80 percent of our crop to anthracnose, and we ended up replanting four or five times," Morrow said, adding they've already put about 20,000 plants in toward this year's crop.
To combat such a problem, Morrow said they made several changes in their operation this year.
"One thing we did was change the nursery that we receive our plants from," he said, adding, "This year we're getting our plants from Oregon instead of California."
Morrow said the labor to replant strawberries costs around $22 per 1,000 plants, so the costs add up when you have to plant several times.
Besides changing nurseries, the planting process also is different this year on the Morrow farm.
"We're dipping our plants before planting this year," Morrow said, explaining the plants are fully submerged in the fungicide Quadris for 30 minutes and then drained before they are planted.
Of course, such measures also affect the farmers' profit margins because of the increased labor involved in dipping the plants and the costs of the fungicides.
Bracy said Louisiana strawberry farmers make a definite contribution to the local economy in the Tangipahoa Parish area.
"In Tangipahoa, strawberries are consistently a profitable crop year in and year out for the farmers - although it is a difficult and labor-intensive crop to grow," Bracy said.
Strawberries are the highest value fruit crop in Louisiana with a farm value of $8.5 million. The industry involves about 130 growers who are located mostly in the southeastern part of the state.