Warm weather yields sweeter strawberries

Due to a polar vortex this winter, Louisiana received some frigid temperatures, and as a result Southeastern delayed classes for a week in late January. A polar vortex is a mass of freezing cold air that hangs above the Arctic Circle and is contained by strong winds according to AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski. Winds were forced downward from Canada into as far as the Florida Panhandle.
Also a result of this year’s polar vortex was the delay of strawberry growing in Ponchatoula. December, January, February and March-a month strawberry plants love-had a range of temperatures from 17 to 50 degrees. Those cold temperatures are not conducive to the strawberry plant. Eric Morrow, farmer and owner of Morrow Farms, is now in a race against time as warmer weather picks up before the hot weather of May kicks in. With the 43rd annual Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival this weekend, April 11-13, Morrow and his team are finally picking the berries the plants are producing.
“December was so cold that we had to pull the cover on the plants, and the plants stayed covered for about 40 days,” Morrow said of the cold weather. “I’ve never covered berries for so long. Then, we got to January, and we still had them covered. We really weren’t getting any fruits.”
The delay is over now as April brought temperatures in the 70s and 80s. Morrow must pick as many berries as possible before extremely high temperatures roll into town. May, June and July will scorch the fields of their harvest.
“Now, we’re picking berries. What the problem is, though, is that we’re fighting time,” Morrow said. “We are having longer daylight hours, and that triggers a hormone in the plant which will stop the plant from making strawberries. As we get over 16 hours of daylight, the plants will stop making strawberries. So that’s how we’re fighting against the time.”
This year’s Strawberry Festival is sure to have fresh, red, ripe berries for the public. Farmers grow their own strawberries locally and drive them straight to the festival, so there are fewer food miles on the berries ensuring their freshness.
As an eighth generation farmer at Morrow Farms in Ponchatoula, he farms on the land of his ancestors. The land was granted to his family in 1859 by President James Buchannan, and Morrow says he returned home 16 years ago from his desk job in Chicago to take over the family business. The farm has been in business for a little over 150 years. According to Morrow, the popularity of the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival has grown since its humble beginnings.
“I grew up as a kid going to the festival and selling berries with my dad,” said Morrow. “It was a lot of fun, and it was a lot smaller then too. It has grown tremendously from what it used to be when I was a kid. It’s a big thing now. It’s a lot of promotion for the Ponchatoula strawberry, and people look for it. It’s a cultural thing. People right now, they want crawfish and they want strawberry short cake for dessert.”
Since 1972, Memorial Park in Ponchatoula has hosted the festival for people from all across the parish to attend. Now, visitors from across the nation visit Ponchatoula every year in April to taste the sweetness of the south. The Queen and King of this year’s festival is a pair of Southeastern alums. Gabrielle Palma, 2011 Miss Southeastern, will reign as the Louisiana Strawberry Queen XLII, and Wayne Howes, Jr. will reign as Strawberry Festival King. The Grand Marshall will be the Ponchatoula High School Chapter of Future Farmers of America. Festival hours are 4-10 p.m. on Friday, April 11, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, April 12 and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 13. For more information on the festival and events, visit www.lastrawberryfestival.com.