Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes were at one time key points in an area known as “Louisiana’s Berry Belt.”
In recent years though, that belt has tightened. Where it was estimated that in the early 20th Century there were over 10,000 acres of strawberry fields, the LSU AgCenter projects that under 200 acres were planted in 2018.
It’s a big drop for a crop that was named the Official Fruit of Louisiana in 2001.
While the acreage available to strawberry growers has decreased steadily over the past 20 years, Mary Helen Ferguson, an associate extension agent at the LSU AgCenter in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes, says that the actual production has not declined in tandem.
“The yield per acre has gone up over the years (between 1988 and now), so while the acreage has decreased, the production hasn’t decreased as much as the change in acreage might suggest,” Ferguson said.
Even so, some farmers, like Rhonda L. Poche’ of Landry-Poche’ Strawberry Farm, have a bleak view of their future.
“Our farm has been in business since 1926 and my dream is/was for this family tradition to be handed down for generations to come," Poché said. "I just can’t see that happening. Making a living on the farm like grand-daddy did just isn’t in the cards anymore. There’s just not enough money in it to raise a family anymore.”
What’s contributing to the decline in strawberry farms and farmers? There are a number of factors.
“Some of the main concerns I, as a 4th generation farmer, have are the rising cost of plants, plastics and labor," Poche’ said. "We can’t get locals to harvest our crops and the rising [prevailing wage] rates are killing the small farmers. All of this coupled with the influx of California and Mexico strawberries during our harvest season is another challenge. We have the land, just not the labor.”
Offers for the land from developers looking to expand housing options within the two parishes have become attractive, particularly to farmers looking forward and seeing continued struggles to survive.
Ferguson says the decline also can be attributed to a changing lifestyle: “Farming is challenging, with a great deal of risk (weather, markets, pests, etc.) and there are easier jobs.”
Discussions have taken place as to whether a legislative solution would provide a positive change.
William Fletcher, a ninth generation strawberry farmer and owner of Fletcher Strawberry Farm in Ponchatoula thinks the answer is in changing consumer habits.
“I don't think legislation is the answer," Fletcher said. "My only suggestion is that we ask consumers to continue to buy Louisiana strawberries and support the folks that are still farming.”