The closer the berry, the sweeter the fruit

Louisiana's strawberry crop is small but mighty good

Strawberries from Carona Farms/ Provided by Matthew Carona
Strawberries from Carona Farms/ Provided by Matthew Carona
Avatar photo
Avatar photo

Crates and crates of deep red strawberries. Strawberry lemonade, strawberry wine, strawberry daiquiris, strawberry whiskey. Stalls hawking deep fried strawberries, chocolate covered strawberries, strawberry shortcake, strawberry ice cream, strawberry pie, strawberry salsa, strawberry jam. A strawberry eating contest, a strawberry parade with massive strawberry floats, a strawberry auction, and the most strawberry gear––hats, headbands, t-shirts, bikinis, sunglasses––I’ve ever seen in one place.

This is the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, one of Louisiana’s largest agricultural festivals, drawing more than 300,000 visitors each April when the area’s pride berry is at its peak. The strawberries are juicy and sweet, best eaten straight from the carton.

Ponchatoula calls itself the Strawberry Capital of the World and the strawberry is the official state fruit of Louisiana. So why hadn’t I heard of Ponchatoula strawberries before?

The rise and fall of Louisiana strawberry farms

Native Americans ate and cultivated strawberries long before European settlers came to Louisiana, but it was Italian immigrants in the late 1800s who grew the state’s industry. In 1901, Robert Cloud, a strawberry farmer in Independence, Louisiana, created the Klondyke strawberry. It was more durable than other berries and better for shipping.

Soon after, refrigerated rail cars and Louisian’s location on the Illinois Central Railroad made transporting strawberries much easier, even all the way north to Chicago. By 1930, there were 24,600 acres of strawberries grown in Southern Louisiana, according to a report from Louisiana State University.

That’s decreased dramatically.

As of 2022, there were 206 acres of strawberries in Louisiana, with a total gross farm value of $10,224,780. Looking at Livingston and Tangipahoa, the two major strawberry growing parishes, it’s clear strawberries are on the decline. In 1988 there were 40 growers in Livingston and 225 in Tangipahoa. In 2022, there were only nine growers in Livingston and 16 in Tangipahoa.

Strawberries are expensive to grow and labor intensive. Frank Fekete, a farmer in Hungarian Settlement, said it costs him about $3,000 per acre. He used to do about a dozen acres but is down to more like four. Finding labor is another issue. Most strawberries in Louisiana are handpicked, a time intensive process. If you farm strawberries, it’s out of love.

“But once it gets in your blood like me, I’ll be growing them until they throw the hatchet at me,” Fekete said.

In addition to the Klondyke, the Daybreak, Headliner, and Tangi strawberries were cultivated in Louisiana. But by the 1960s, they became susceptible to disease and harder to grow. That, combined with the modernization of the American food distribution system and other varieties coming from elsewhere in the U.S., contributed to significant shrinking in strawberry production in Louisiana.

“All strawberries have a shelf life,” says Dale Carona, a fourth-generation strawberry farmer in Independence. “As they get older, after 10 to 20 years, they’re more susceptible to diseases, and you have to find more disease resistant varieties.”

Losing heritage varieties

LSU terminated its breeding program in the 1980s, leaving farmers to source strawberries from California, Florida and North Carolina. But mostly California. When you picture a strawberry, you’re likely picturing a Driscoll’s berry. Large, heart shaped, and maybe not quite fully ripe on top. Driscoll’s has dominated the berry market in the U.S., partly due to its varieties that are large and hardy. They can be shipped from California around the world.

Kiki Fontenot, regional director of the Southwest Region at the LSU AGCenter, said today LSU’s breeding program is focused on sugarcane and rice. There is a fruit specialist who works on pecans, blackberries and other fruits, but LSU does not currently have any specialists focused on strawberries.

“It’s a matter of state funding,” she said. “With just one person, you can’t be an expert on everything.”

“It’s a matter of state funding,” she said. “With just one person, you can’t be an expert on everything.”

The LSU Ag Center does have a lab where farmers can test their soil and determine the best varieties to plant, but some farmers say they would prefer the center to focus on Louisiana-specific berries.

“They’re planting those California-sized berries and just doing experiments on them, trying to report back to us, but we all know all that. We want them to develop something suited to Louisiana like they used to,” said Fekete.

Carona said he would like a variety that’s resistant to rain, something breeders in California don’t have to think about. He said severe rainfall has hurt strawberry crops in recent years and seems to cause more damage than extreme heat or other weather phenomena. Eight inches of rain that hit right before this year’s Strawberry Festival turned Fekete’s strawberries so soupy, he couldn’t even sell those he hadn’t picked ahead of time.

Farmers would also like more focus on flavor.

“Everybody wants a bigger, redder strawberry. In the store you’re not gonna go, ‘oh these are smaller I’ll buy these. But you have to have flavor with it also,” Carona said.

That’s where buying locally can help.

What’s the secret to sweeter strawberries?

Fekete grows the Camino Real, San Andreas, Ruby June, and Victor strawberry varieties. Florida Brilliance, Fronteras and Festival are also popular. None of these were cultivated in Louisiana, for Louisiana. Yet, they taste extra delicious here. Why?

“If you take a California berry and split it in half, there’s a berry colored rim but inside it’s light in color. A Louisiana berry is red and juicy all the way through. That’s because we have superior alluvial soils here,” said Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain. “I really think it’s where we grow them, up and down the edges of the [Mississippi] River.”

Farmers repeatedly mentioned soil quality as a major reason why Louisiana is a good place to grow strawberries, as well as the long growing season.

It doesn’t get too cold in the winter, and while it gets hot, that doesn’t typically happen until after May. In recent years farmers have started using row covers to extend the season even longer.

“They’re what’s keeping us in business,” said Carona.

When I saw strawberry shortcake on a Christmas menu in New Orleans, I was shocked. But now, farmers can harvest from December to May. Ideal strawberry weather, according to Fekete, is about 55 degrees in the mornings and 75-80 in the afternoon. You can grow strawberries in New York, or Wisconsin, or Canada, but you’ll only get to enjoy them for a few fleeting weeks. Many Louisiana farmers actually purchase strawberry plants from Canada, because they’re more tolerant to cold and therefore Louisiana farmers can plant them earlier.

But perhaps the biggest reason strawberries taste so good here? They’re picked ripe and sold within a few days. The vast majority are sold within a few hundred miles, at u-pick farms, or farmers markets. Because they’re not being shipped, they can be picked at their peak.

“If you live in Louisiana, you should buy Louisiana strawberries, because they’re gonna taste better than California, North Carolina, or Florida strawberries,” said Fontenot. “When a strawberry is picked it’s no longer gonna ripen. Strawberries break down quickly. The closer the farm is, the better it is.”

A Louisiana berry tastes so good because you’re eating it at its absolute best. It’s why my favorite strawberry memories are eating them straight from my dad’s garden in Wisconsin in June. Or why a North Carolina berry will taste better eaten in North Carolina than shipping a Louisiana berry there would. If you’re in California, the best strawberry is a California strawberry picked fully ripe.

Louisianans are lucky that the season is so long, and that there are plenty of u-pick farms to find berries at the source.

blue-line

Comments

Comments

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Avatar photoAlancbrownmd says

    I didn’t skip over this one. My daughter asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday when we will be together in Seattle, big party or small party. I told her all I want is strawberry shortcake like my mama used to make for me. July might be a little late for the fresh crop though. We are buying strawberries now at the farmers market in Yonkers. They are not up to my standards. Not very sweet even if they are somewhat red and they are definitely hard and white on the inside. The only strawberries that I really love are the ones I pick in the field and eat immediately. Not much chance of that these days in the northeast at least. Hoping for a surprise in the PNW.

Here's what else you missed in The Food Section this week

Crystal Mether runs a Literary Flour pop-up at Danger Zone/ Photo by Mark Blankenship

By the book

Nashville baker concocts sweets for readers

The Louisiana Food Bank Association held an anti-hunger rally in Baton Rouge on May 19, 2008/ Photo by nobis-scotia via Flickr

The need to feed Lousiana

State enacts slew of laws to restrict benefits

The future Ms. Ruby's Corner Market/ Photo provided by West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition 

Much more in store

Residents of Charleston’s west side await new grocery