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Valentine's strawberries scarce but lots for fest

Valentine's strawberries scarce but lots for fest

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana strawberries may be scarce and pricey around Valentine's Day, but the freezes delaying the winter harvest could mean a sweet bounty for Easter and the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival in April.

Strawberries are the state's most valuable fruit crop. The $14.5 million harvest in 2012 made up nearly 45 percent of the year's total value from fruit, on 17 percent of the land planted in fruit.

But it's a local crop, sold locally to grocery chains and at farmers markets and roadside stands. The total acreage — 380 acres in 2012, 350 acres last year, about 285 this year — is minute compared to California, the country's No. 1 producer, with 38,500 acres in 2012; and Florida, with 8,700 acres.

The 65-acre drop between last year's and this year's plantings was largely because of losses from a wet winter a year ago, said Sandra Benjamin, LSU AgCenter agent in Tangipahoa Parish, where most of Louisiana's strawberries are grown from plants brought in from California, Canada, Michigan and North Carolina.

Mark Liuzza, who sells most of his berries through the Rouse's supermarket chain, said he expects to have some Valentine's berries if it warms up. He agreed that the later harvest likely will be above average, thanks to the cold.

"It'll probably be March before we have plenty of berries because we're having all this cold," Liuzza said.

The Strawberry Festival is April 11-13 and Easter is April 20.

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