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Northshore berry farmers get ready for deep freeze

Published: Nov. 25, 2013 at 10:03 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 2, 2013 at 10:26 PM CST
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PONCHATOULA, La. - On the north shore, farmers stretch massive sheets of fabric across hundreds of acres of strawberry plants ahead of a possible freeze for Thanksgiving.

Cold temperatures could destroy an early crop.

The Morrow family has grown strawberries near Ponchatoula since before the Civil War.

"Our family has been here since the 1850s," said Eric Morrow. "This is a land grant farm from President James Buchanan in 1859."

It's a legacy that's precious, and one that Morrow's working hard to protect, especially this week.

"I am very worried," he said. "They keep on adjusting what they are going to say, temperatures around 25. We have a lot of flowers and blooms."

In just three weeks, each one of those blooms will become a strawberry, unless they freeze.

"The plant wouldn't die, it would just be the flowers and the crowns," Morrow said. "It would just set us back."

In the old days, strawberries were only picked during spring, but now, thanks to cold-resistant plants and modern farming, the harvest begins in the winter.

Without protection, the freeze could cost Morrow tens of thousands of dollars.

"We started putting these over Saturday," he said, talking about the plant covers. "It just takes a while to put it all out and get it set and everything."

In the past, Morrow's uncles may have sprayed these plants down with waters or his grandparents may have covered them with straw, but those days are long gone.

"Now we do frost control with blankets," he said. "Instead of a six-week season, we got six months. Everything's changed."

What hasn't changed are some of the key ingredients that make the strawberry industry one of the northshore's biggest cash crops: plenty of water and transportation.

"They developed the strawberry and the industry, and with the railroads through Ponchatoula, they were able to use it for transportation to the northern states," Morrow said.

With hard work and a little luck, Morrow is confident the early berries will survive.

"Probably those flowers will be a strawberry at Christmas time," he said.

And that's something his great grandparents could have never pulled off.

Louisiana is considered one of the top 10 states for strawberry production, and though the local strawberry industry is getting increasing competition from overseas, Morrow says he has no problem selling his berries at local farmer's markets or chain stores.