Iowa Public Television


Strawberry Farmers Brace for Freeze

posted on January 4, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As Louisiana's strawberry farmers covered their crops for protection against the expected drop in temperatures, the state's peach farmers hoped the cold weather would stick around for a while.

"The more cold weather we have, the better," said Joe Mitchum, a peach grower in northern Louisiana.

While the cold snap might hurt south Louisiana's sensitive strawberry crop, it will help north Louisiana's peach farmers, whose fruit trees need cold weather during their period of dormancy.

Peach trees need about 800 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees each growing season, Mitchum said. Thus far, the weather has been too warm — Mitchum's crop has had 250 hours of so-called "chill hours." Ideally, the crop should have about 350 hours by this time of year.

Mitchum said a lack of chill hours generally results in smaller, misshapen peaches at harvest season from late May through late July.

The warmer weather thus far has been ideal for the state's strawberry crop, which has been thriving with months of dry, warm days and mild nights, said farmer William Fletcher, who grows strawberries in Ponchatoula, which bills itself as the "Strawberry Capital of the World."

Since mid-November, Fletcher's 80,000 strawberry plants have been laden with berries in all stages of growth — from the white flowering blooms and small green berries to the plump and juicy red ones.

Fletcher says winter cold snaps always pose a danger to strawberry crops, particularly to the plants' vulnerable blooms. The blooms, which are white flowers with yellow centers, extend past the plant's leaves, making them vulnerable to the cold.

If the blooms are burned by frost, their centers turn brown, they lose their petals and do not produce berries, Fletcher said.

"All we can do is cover them up and hope for the best," he said.

Fletcher said he covered his crop on Tuesday with an air, water and sunlight permeable material that holds in heat. It was the third time this year he has covered the crop, though the previous two times were precautionary, he said.

"This will be our first hard freeze this year," he said.

The extent of the damage won't be fully known for four to six weeks, when farmers will be able determine if there's been a lapse in productivity, Fletcher said.

Optimal strawberry-growing conditions occur in April, when the crop takes roughly 21 days to transform from blooms to pickable berries, Fletcher said. In the winter, the growth period is longer — roughly four to six weeks — because of the shorter days, colder temperatures and rain, he said.

Besides strawberries, Wednesday night's cold snap could be a problem for Louisiana's wheat, sugarcane, blueberry and citrus crops, as well as the harvesting of crawfish, said Ashley Rodrigue, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture.

Tags: agriculture crops Louisiana news snow weather