Story, photos and recipes by Cynthia Nobles
William Fletcher owns Fletcher Farm in Ponchatoula and he has been growing southeast Louisiana’s famously sweet strawberries for 25 years. Along with 8 acres of seasonal vegetables, William grows 6 acres of berries. “This farm belonged to my grandfather, George Edward Fletcher,” he says. “He cleared stumps with mules and dynamite. And he grew strawberries.”
“I grew up in Ponchatoula,” William says. “I’ve lived other places, but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” He and his wife, Ginger, are the fourth generation of family to live in his grandfather’s old house.
Surprisingly, he is one of only three strawberry farmers left in the city known as the “Strawberry Capital of the World.” With over 75 percent of Louisiana’s strawberries growing in Tangipahoa Parish, the state’s industry has a gross farm value of $8.4 million. That’s quite a drop from $15.2 million in 2012.
Louisiana’s commercial growing of strawberries began in 1876 and peaked in 1931. Part of the industry’s shrinkage is due to labor shortages, the loss of associations that market berries, urbanization, and mass production from California and Mexico.
William, who is also chairman of the Louisiana Strawberry Marketing Board, pointed out a few more challenges. “Yields keep diminishing. Costs rise and diseases are a perpetual problem,” he says. Since he started farming, the nearby Tangipahoa River has flooded his property 5 times, which has drastically eroded his topsoil. “But I’m sticking with it. I’ve worked in the mortgage business and I tried cattle. Farming is what I like, and strawberries are my prime crop.”
The main berry variety William grows is called Festival, which was developed for the Coastal South. “It’s not as big as the varieties that grow in California,” he says, “but it’s more flavorful and sweeter.” He also says that his strawberries have a shorter shelf life than what’s typically found in grocery stores. “But they taste so much better. Customers, especially restaurants, gladly go through the trouble of buying what I grow.”
William quickly made it clear that growing Louisiana’s “official state fruit” takes a lot of manhours. “The season starts when the last berries come out of the field in May, when we bushhog and disc the ground and plant cover crops.” Lately, a favorite summer crop of his is sunn hemp, a legume that increases soil organic matter, provides nitrogen, and doesn’t harbor nematodes.
“When the threat of hurricanes is over, we cut the cover crop,” he says. “We take soil samples, looking for a pH target of 6.0.” A “ridger” behind a tractor lays off 2 rows at a time that are 48 inches apart. A plastic-laying machine lays dark plastic over the rows. “You need plastic around the plants to keep away disease and keep the fruit clean and dry.”
In October, his rootstock arrives from California. “There’s 1,000 to a box. At that point they don’t have any leaves. They’re only roots on a crown.” It takes 2 workers 7 days to plant 90,000 plants by hand. Strawberries are heavy feeders, and the next 2 months are spent fertilizing and weeding.
He yanked a long, thin green stem from a plant. “Runners grow from the plants,” William said, “and they have to be pulled by hand.” Runners, also known as stolons, are stems that run above the ground and produce new clone plants at nodes. The plant’s attempt at lateral propagation saps up energy it needs to grow strong and healthy.
The first flowers usually show up in December. “It takes 21 days from flower to harvestable strawberry,” William says. Early crops bring the highest prices. “In a warm winter, we sometimes harvest in January. But bloom production shuts down in cold weather.”
The height of the Louisiana strawberry season is from mid-March through mid-May. Picking is done by hand. Berries are packed in the field into 1-pound clamshells and cardboard flats and half-flats.
“We don’t wash them before selling,” William says, which explains the ‘wash before use’ directions on many strawberry packages. “Not washing prevents bruising and disease transmission.”
By 10:00 a.m. the day of harvest, William is sending his perfectly ripe strawberries to farmers markets and roadside stands. Distributors sometimes deliver from Pensacola to Houston, but they sell mostly to local independent grocery stores and restaurants.
Imperfect berries often end up in the hands of Ginger. “The ‘Mrs. Fletcher’ aspect of the farm,” he says of his wife’s contribution, “is to make jams, jellies, and baked goods from his berries.”
Louisiana strawberries unarguably have more intense flavor than typical grocery store varieties, and they are worth the effort to seek out. Local berries are particularly in demand around Valentine’s Day. Your best bet for finding them at that time is at local farmers markets.
Naturally, strawberries are front and center at the highly popular Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, which is held the first full weekend of every April (that is not Easter). As usual, William will sell product from his stand at the festival’s Farmers Row. So will many other growers from the Tangipahoa and Livingston Parish area. “Festival organizers vet us farmers,” he says. “They want local berries. We need to do all we can to showcase our product.” This year’s festival is April 14-16. I think I’ll put that date on my calendar.
Do you have a Louisiana agriculture story or a recipe you’d like to share? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.
Makes 12 strawberries
12 large, unblemished strawberries with fresh green caps
6 ounces chocolate, chopped (any kind but unsweetened)
1 tablespoon solid vegetable shortening
1. Wash strawberries and blot as dry as possible. Refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Melt chocolate and shortening in top of a double boiler and stir until mixture is smooth. Remove top of double boiler from bottom.
3. Stick a toothpick down through the green top of a strawberry and dip red part of strawberry into chocolate. Let excess chocolate drip off. Place finished strawberries on a parchment-lined plate. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes and up to 8 hours.
Strawberry Banana Smoothie
Makes 2 servings
1 banana, sliced and frozen overnight
2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
½ cup Greek yogurt
½ cup cold milk
Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth.
Makes 2 cups
Before Heinz began selling tomato ketchup in 1876, home cooks concocted their own. They made flavor-packed ketchups from anything they wanted, including oysters, mushrooms, walnuts, and fruit.
1 pound fresh strawberries, coarsely chopped
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch cayenne pepper
1. In a deep, heavy saucepan, combine strawberries, onion, and garlic. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft, about 10 minutes. Transfer mixture to a blender or food processor and puree. Scoop the puree back into the saucepan.
2. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring the mixture to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until thick, 20-30 minutes. Stir often.
3. Remove from heat and cool thoroughly, uncovered. Cover cooled ketchup tightly and store in the refrigerator up to a week.
Makes 24 standard sized cupcakes
This doctored cake mix recipe tastes much better than what comes from a box of strawberry cake mix.
1 (15.25-ounce) box white cake mix
1 (3-ounce) box strawberry Jell-O
3 tablespoons cake flour or all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup pureed fresh strawberries
¾ cup canola oil
¼ cup whole milk, at room temperature
Frosting: storebought strawberry icing or Strawberry Buttercream Frosting (recipe follows)
1. Preheat oven to 350°. Place liners in cupcake pans and set aside.
2. In a large bowl, stir together all cake ingredients, then mix on medium mixer speed 2 minutes. Fill the cupcake liners ⅔ full and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 18-20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely on a rack. Frost when cool.
Strawberry Buttercream Frosting
Makes enough to frost 24 cupcakes
This recipe is worth the trouble. To make things easier, prepare the strawberry puree a day or two ahead. The frosting can be made 2 days ahead and left at room temperature, or a week ahead and refrigerated.
1 pound fresh strawberries, pureed in a blender
2 sticks salted butter, at room temperature
1 pound (4 cups) confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Spoon strawberry puree into a heavy-bottomed, high-sided saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it is reduced and thick as jam, 15-20 minutes. Cool completely, then refrigerate until ready to use.
2. In a large bowl, beat the butter on medium-high until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add 2 cups confectioners’ sugar and beat until combined. Beat in 3 tablespoons of the strawberry reduction.
3. Add the vanilla and slowly beat in the remaining confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Adjust the consistency by adding more strawberry reduction or confectioners’ sugar.