Strawberry farmers in Ponchatoula, Amite and other areas trying to recover from torrential rains and floodwaters over the past week have taken inventory of their fields, and for many, it doesn’t look good.
Heavy rains could not have come at a worse time, because berries were ripening, and farmers were gearing up for the first major harvest when anywhere from 4 to more than 16 inches of rain fell on parts of southeast Louisiana over a two-day period.
“Well, we lost a lot,” said Mark Liuzza, of Jack Liuzza and Sons farm in Amite, who estimated less than a third of his 30 acres went underwater, but the 20 remaining acres still needed work because plants were damaged by the rain. “Today, we’re picking good berries.”
In Ponchatoula, considered the heart of the strawberry farms and home of the annual strawberry festival, more than 13 inches of rain fell last week.
LSU’s 2015 Louisiana Ag Summary says there were 81 strawberry growers in the state who work 367 acres. The leading producer of strawberries is Tangipahoa Parish, where 285 of those acres lie. The parish experienced widespread flooding in the storms.
Some farmers report their fields were turned into lakes, essentially ruining an entire field of strawberries, while others reported no flooding but heavy losses from the rains, which will delay and reduce their productivity this year.
Liuzza said this was the worst flooding he’s seen on the farm he’s been on all of his 48 years.
“I never had a whole field go under,” he said.
Heather Robertson, of Johndales Farm in Ponchatoula, has about 15 acres in strawberries that were just getting ready to be picked, but the flood put 8 to 10 of those acres under water. On the other fields, the plants looked good, but the riper strawberries were damaged by rain and have to be cleaned off to let the new berries grow. She and her husband have worked the family farm for the past 25 years and may have seen flooding come up to the edge of the field before, but nothing close to what they saw last week.
Eric Morrow, of Morrow Farm in Ponchatoula, had 10 acres in strawberries, and the loss means tens of thousands of dollars in investment gone.
“Everyone took a beating,” he said. “We’re not going to get any help.”
He explained that the farm aid goes to commodity crops. As a specialty crop, the strawberry farmers end up being on their own when a disaster strikes.
As someone who sells at the Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge, he said it will take time, but he expects to be back in Baton Rouge three times a week this summer.
“I have a lot of good people who come out every week and support us,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be back pretty quick.”
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