Enjoying fresh Louisiana strawberries at Christmas isn't yet a tradition, but it could have been this year. Experts with the LSU AgCenter say favorable weather and new strawberry varieties helped farmers start bringing the crop in earlier than usual this year.

Regina Bracy, resident coordinator and professor at the LSU AgCenter's Hammond Research Station, says some growers “have been picking since December, and the weather has been very favorable,” she said, explaining that the warmer, drier weather and new varieties were the keys to the early production this year.

Farmers in Tangipahoa Parish, where the bulk of the strawberry crop is raised, said quality is excellent and that the berries they're harvesting are very sweet, which is unusual at this time of year.

Bracy says the sweetness of the berries stems from the warmer-than-usual weather so far this winter, which causes the strawberries to produce more sugars.

In the past, when the farmers planted different varieties, they normally would start to pick in January or February and expect the crop to last from six weeks to two months. But with the new varieties they now plant, the farmers start picking in December and expect to have strawberries through Mother's Day in mid-May, Bracy says.

“They now plant a variety called Strawberry Festival, which tends to come in a little earlier and is what they're picking now,” Bracy said. “But they also plant a variety that tends to come in later in the season so production will be more consistent throughout the season — instead of the entire crop coming in at the beginning of the season and none at the end.”

Eric Morrow, a Ponchatoula strawberry grower, said his crop is about two weeks to three weeks ahead of schedule this year. He said the warm weather has really helped his 10-acre crop.

“If it wouldn't rain too much and we get a mild, cool spring, I think we will do really well,” Morrow said, adding, “With the high demand for Louisiana strawberries, I have slightly increased production from last year.”

The one thing that has farmers in the strawberry growing area concerned is the lack of labor, since so many of the potential laborers are helping in the New Orleans recovery.

On the other hand, Morrow said the storms and the drought had very little effect on his strawberry crop.

“We hadn't planted yet when Katrina hit and we have irrigation systems, so the drought didn't have much of an effect on our operation,” Morrow said.

Strawberry farmers start planting their crop in late September or early October and are finished by mid- to late May.

“When strawberries are over, we produce other vegetables on a small-scale and we retail them out of the local farmers' market in Baton Rouge” he said.

At one time, strawberry farmers had serious problems with fungus diseases that killed many of the plants before they started to produce. Bracy said changes in production practices have helped to alleviate many of the disease problems.

“Years ago, the farmers would produce their own plants, but they quit doing that because of a fungus that is commonly called crown rot,” Bracy explained. “This fungus would cause rot in the crown, which kills the plants.

“Now our farmers are getting their plants from colder climates like in Canada and Michigan, and some are even getting plants from the northern part of California,” she said.

Area farmers also have had problems with plants brought in from colder climates, however, which suffered from fungus diseases once they got into Louisiana's warmer climate.

“We've developed a process of dipping the plants in a fungicide before planting, and that seems to have eliminated the problem,” Bracy said of the solution found to that issue.

The LSU AgCenter still conducts strawberry research at its Hammond Research Station — although it has discontinued the strawberry breeding program formerly conducted there.

“We are now just cooperating with Florida and North Carolina with their breeding programs and getting some of the new varieties that they're releasing,” Bracy said.

Bracy explains that the strawberry research at the station is concentrating more on production practices. “We're looking at fungicides and how they affect the new varieties. We're also looking at drip irrigation and fertigation and how it affects the production and the quality of the strawberry fruit,” she said.