My Early November Visit to Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish
– A Strawberry Industry With a Great Tradition
E. Barclay Poling, Professor Emeritus
NC State University, Raleigh, NC (12/30/15)
In early November, I had a terrific opportunity to visit Louisiana’s strawberry industry in the Tangipahoa Parish, that includes the Hammond, Independence, Springfield, Holden and Ponchatoula growing areas.
Just before leaving for my trip on November 3rd, I spent a little time doing some research about this industry. For starters, I decided to see if I could find some information about Louisiana’s current strawberry acreage? But, I discovered that the National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA), actually stopped recording statistics for Louisiana after 1999. In Figure 2, you can see that Louisiana’s strawberry acreage dropped to 450 acres in 1997, and then leveled off at 400 acres in 1998 and 1999. This was a pretty significant drop from the mid-90s. In 1994, for example, the state of Louisiana had 1,100 acres of strawberries.
In previous decade (1980-1989), the Louisiana strawberry industry fluctuated between 550 and 700 acres (Figure 3). And, by going back a little further in time, I thought it was interesting to note that Louisiana had 1,300 acres in 1970, and this was only 500 acres less that Florida in that same year (Figure 4).
An astounding 23,500 acres in 1931
With a little further investigation, I discovered in Misc. Publication 102, U.S. Department of Agriculture, that in the early decades of the 20th Century, Louisiana had a mere 18,500 acres in 1926. By 1931, strawberry acreage in Louisiana reached 23,500 acres in 1931!
Where have all the berries (in Louisiana) gone?
Well, there is no question that there has been a considerable “downsizing” in Louisiana strawberry acreage since its peak of nearly 25,000 acres in the early 30’s, but what are we to make of Louisiana’s drop from 1,300 acres in 1970 to 400 acres in 1999 (Figure 2)? Well, I am still investigating that question as of this writing in late December, but I did glean from the Nov. 2004 Crop Profile for Strawberries in Louisiana (LSU AgCenter) that there were:
“400-500 acres primarily in Tangipahoa parish (that includes Hammond), and Livingston parish in the southeastern part of the state.”
In a more recent article (2010), I learned that Sandra Benjamin, LSU AgCenter extension agent in Tangipahoa Parish, indicated that “There are about 40 commercial and backyard growers, with about 350 acres of strawberries planted in Tangipahoa Parish.” It was also stated that The Louisiana strawberry industry involves 83 growers who produce more than 380 acres of strawberries for a gross farm value of about $15.2 million (according to the Louisiana Ag Summary). And, in 2010, Tangipahoa Parish was the leading strawberry-producing parish with $11.5 million in sales.
Perhaps the strawberry industry in Hammond and Ponchatoula peaked during the 1930s, and then declined greatly after World War II. But, one thing that has not declined in Tangipahoa Parish and across the Bayou State, is the enthusiasm of people in this region for Louisiana strawberries! In 2001, Governor Mike Foster even signed legislation declaring the “Louisiana strawberry” the one and only official state fruit. I have also heard it said that by a famous Louisiana authority on the history of this industry, Ginger Romero:
The strawberry is so ingrained in the way of life, the way of thought, that the minds and hearts of folks of Louisiana’s berry belt can never let it go.
I only wish that I had had a little more time on my visit to Louisiana in the week of November 3, 2015, to have slipped over to the archives of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Center for Louisiana Studies, to have had a look at the Ginger Romero Collection which contains in Box 2 an article: Strawberries in Louisiana: From the Klondyke to the Chandler.
My arrival in Hammond, Louisiana on Nov. 4th
Upon my arrival in Hammond, Louisiana on November 4th, I noticed in the lobby of the Holiday Inn a brochure (cover shown in Figure 5), that described what a really big deal strawberries were in the early part of the last century.
Were the older strawberries like Klondike better than today’s varieties?
According to U.P. Hedrick, author of The Small Fruits of New York (1925 publication of the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station), the Klondike strawberry berry was a perfect fit for shipping industry such as Louisiana’s strawberry industry in the early part of the 20th Century.
But, Hedrick also noted on p. 474 of this massive 614 page book that Klondike’s quality was “scarcely above mediocre.” It is interesting to note in a recent article about the Louisiana strawberry industry, “Preserving the Louisiana heritage strawberry,” that ‘Klondike,’ one of several heritage, or heirloom varieties (including Daybreak, Headliner and Tangi), “tasted intensely of the most pure strawberry flavor.”
There seems to be some controversy though about just how flavorful Klondike really was? A strawberry farmer I met in Ponchatoula on my November visit (Eric Morrow), commented in the same article: “Everyone remembers [berries in their] childhood as something special, but in reality they probably wouldn’t taste as good as the berries today.” (http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/preserving-the-louisiana-heritage-strawberry/Content?oid=1256857)
The money flowed south
I particularly enjoyed these statements from the brochure in the hotel lobby in Hammond:
“At the turn of the 20th Century Hammond struck gold, in the form of red. With the development of the strawberry industry, Hammond saw another explosion in growth. The city became a center for growing, processing and shipping strawberries. Boxcar loads of strawberries became a staple of the area and as the trains left the city headed north, the money flowed south.”
This brief excerpt from The Louisiana Strawberry Story (Figure 7), describes Ponchatoula’s selling associations that functioned to simplify the marketing of berries for local farmers, as well as help in a number of other important areas like ordering plants:
“Farmers might never lay eyes on a buyer. They would deliver their berries to the association which had supplied them with the plants, fertilizers, crates, implements and sometimes, groceries. Associations dealt with the buyers.”
The growers who I met in Louisiana’s Tangipahoa parish
Most all of the growers I visited in Louisiana’s Tangipahoa parish were small to medium growers (2-8 acres), with the exception of one large producer near the town of Independence, who had about 55 acres for wholesale marketing (Figure 8).[column-group]
A promising future?
In Louisiana, I see an industry that could be poised for an exciting turnaround in future years. I would definitely caution anyone who thinks that Louisiana may have fallen off the national strawberry map, to think again! My reasons for saying this are related to several factors, including the incredible “passion” of the growers I met in Tangipahoa parish for strawberry growing! I could not believe the enthusiasm of the Louisiana growers for testing newer varieties and growing systems. I was especially impressed by their interest in newer UC Davis day-neutrals, like ‘San Andreas’ (Figure 8).
During my last day in Louisiana, Frank Fekete, a strawberry grower and Vo-Ag Teacher in the Hammond area (Figure 10a), invited me to Independence High School, to meet with his Horticulture Class, see their greenhouse (Figure 10b), and to talk about the potential of newer strawberry varieties, including Lassen’s newest varieties: ‘Lucia,’ ‘Scarlet,’ ‘Ruby June,’ and ‘Sweet Ann.’ The students were very interested in learning all about strawberry propagation, and we also talked about weather protection techniques such as low tunnels. I can see a possible application for low tunnels in the Gulf States for rain protection – it can get pretty wet during berry harvest season in this part of the country. What really impressed me about Frank was his “hands on” practical approach to teaching, and how he provides a number of his students from Independence High employment opportunities right on his farm near Hammond.
A strawberry season from Thanksgiving through May!
The strawberry season in Louisiana can begin in January and run through May, and sometimes even a little longer. Day-neutral varieties like ‘San Andreas’ can begin to fruit even by Thanksgiving! I came across one report from the LSU AgCenter following my visit that identified a cooperative project in Tangipahoa Parish where growers were able to start harvesting the week of Thanksgiving using plugs of the University of Florida varieties ‘Strawberry Festival’ and ‘Radiance’ (I wonder how Florida’s newest variety, ‘Sensation’ might perform in Louisiana?).
Another very unique characteristic of the Tangipahoa Parish strawberry growers that impressed me a lot is their tradition of working together in strawberry associations that actually date back to the 1920s and 1930s. In those years, the creation of selling associations in Ponchatoula and throughout the parish greatly simplified the marketing of berries for local farmers. Even to this day, the growers in Tangipahoa Parish band together in placing their strawberry nursery plant orders.
I wish to sincerely thank Lassen Canyon for giving me this opportunity to visit the Louisiana strawberry industry in the fall of 2015. I am already making plans for a return trip to Tangipahoa Parish next spring, and on that visit I would really like to check out the King Strawberry celebration in Ponchatoula to see for myself whether there is any truth to the claim that Ponchatoula has the sweetest berries in the land!