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 four 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 under water, 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.”
Frank Fekete, who farms 30 acres in Hungarian Settlement just south of Albany, said the floodwater came up to a couple of fields but didn’t make it to the six acres planed in strawberries.
“The rows are like mush and mud,” he said. “It’s probably going to be a tough year.”
It follows a tough year for strawberry farmers last year when consistent spring rains hurt the harvest.
“That’s how it is when you’re farming. You can’t fight Mother Nature,” Fekete said, who is also the agriculture teacher at Independence High School. “No use griping about it. You either give up or get back on the horse.”
Chuck Ciampa, of Ciampa Farms in Hammond, said he lost a lot of berries that got damaged by the rain, but didn’t get flooded.
“We just lost what was ready to harvest,” he said of the 13 acres he farms. “The fruit we picked today looked great.”
In fact, as of Tuesday, he was delivering strawberries to his markets.
“There’s going to be people who didn’t fare as well as I did,” Ciampa said.
Margaret Baglio, of Baglio Farms LLC in Independence, said they did pretty well when it came to flooding, but like most other strawberry farmers, has spent the last couple days cleaning off rain-damaged berries from the plants. Having that much of the harvest needing to be thrown away is going to hurt, but the plants are bouncing back fine and she and her husband are optimistic that the 30,000 plants they have will be producing good berries soon.
“We were one of the fortunate ones,” she said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.