At the turn of the 20th century, life in Tangipahoa Parish, LA., revolved around strawberries.
Legend has it that farmers would line the streets alongside the railroad tracks, waiting to load crates of bright red berries into railroad cars that would carry the fruit from southern Louisiana to the bustling markets in Memphis, New Orleans and Chicago. Production in the parish peaked in the early 1930s, and as U.S. transportation systems improved, the local industry faced increased competition from California and Florida. Today the area is still home to the annual Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival — the state’s largest event after Mardi Gras — but fewer than 50 commercial and backyard strawberry growers remain in the parish, and only about 350 acres of berries are planted annually.
Two families continuing the legacy are Kevin and Elizabeth Liuzza of Tickfaw, and Eric and Natalya Morrow of Ponchatoula. Both Kevin and Eric are members of the Louisiana Strawberry Marketing Board, and each family has chosen its own way to run a profitable operation and to help keep Louisiana strawberries on the map.
“Strawberry production has a very deep history in this area, and just a few families of farmers have stuck with it,” says Marcell Parker, vice president/branch manager in Louisiana Land Bank’s Hammond office, which has financed real estate purchases for the Liuzzas and the Morrows. “It’s a privilege to work with both of these families and to see how they are proudly carrying on the tradition of strawberry farming in Tangipahoa Parish.”
Kevin and Elizabeth Liuzza, Tickfaw, La.
This past spring, nearly 2,500 school-aged visitors to Kevin and Elizabeth Liuzza’s farm jumped on the “Know your farmer, know your food” bandwagon — literally.
Seated inside a brightly painted 70-passenger “wagon” pulled by a tractor, the youngsters learned firsthand about strawberry production and farming in Louisiana while touring the state’s largest strawberry operation, Liuzza Produce Farms. For the past two years, Elizabeth has offered pick-your-own produce events and school tours on the Liuzza family farm.
“It started out as a way to diversify in case of a bad year, and as a way to entertain school kids in the area,” Elizabeth says of the venture. “I’d heard the term agri-tourism and knew we had something to offer.”
The Liuzza Land Experience
The experience begins the moment the students arrive at “Liuzza Land.” Before boarding the wagon, they gather under a covered pavilion where they can enjoy picnic lunches or purchase strawberry-themed concessions, including shortcake, lemonade, tea, cookies, jams and jellies. During the tour, the students visit the greenhouse, plant seeds to take home with them and even get to pick fruit that they take home in containers adorned with the Liuzzas’s label — a smart marketing idea on Elizabeth’s part.
A 15-minute tour in the fields leads to discussions about the crops and production practices, and Elizabeth says she is able to tailor the tour to different ages.
“With the middle school and high school kids, we talk about labor issues and fertilizer applications,” she explains. “The younger kids want to know, ‘Why is that stick in the field? What’s that black hose for?’ They want to know everything.”
With more than 400 acres in production, including 90 acres of strawberries, Liuzza Produce Farms is the ideal outdoor classroom. The family operation produces more than 500,000 packages of fresh produce annually, most of which are distributed to major grocery chains like Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and Associated Grocers. Seasonal crops can include strawberries, cabbage, tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers.
Kevin is a fifth-generation farmer who began farming on 60 acres of his grandfather’s land in high school. Today, he is the farm manager of Liuzza Produce Farms and also runs Kevin Liuzza Farm, LLC, which includes more than 100 acres in Tickfaw and Amite.
Ensuring High Quality
His role includes overseeing food safety, a job that keeps him busy because of stringent government regulations. To ensure the highest quality, the family recently built a new cooling and packing facility.
“Each flat of berries can be traced back to the farm, the field, the picker, even the time it was picked,” Kevin states. He adds that changes in recent years to employment regulations have made it more difficult to hire contract workers.
Elizabeth says that because weather conditions affect shelf life, the Liuzzas don’t send produce very far beyond the Louisiana border. Instead, they operate Berrytown Produce, three open-air markets in Hammond and Ponchatoula that offer a variety of fresh produce and items such as fresh-baked breads, wine, pottery, pewter, gift baskets, jams and jellies.
“We are a ‘12 months out of the year’ operation,” Elizabeth says. “There is no such thing as seasonal for us.” This extends to her “u-pick” events and school tours as well. In the fall, Liuzza Land offers a corn maze and tours of the farm’s pumpkin operation. Elizabeth hopes to add a henhouse, where students can learn about egg production, and facilities where they can learn about milk and wool.
“I never needed a marketing plan to tell me this was going to work,” she says of her idea. “I knew people wanted to pick their own produce, and as a mom I knew that there was nowhere in the area for these kids to go. This is good, wholesome fun and a way to show what farm life is like in this day and age.”
For more information about Liuzza Land tours or Berrytown Produce, visit their website.
Eric and Natalya Morrow, Ponchatoula, La.
According to Eric Morrow, nowhere else does state pride run more rampant than in Louisiana.
“I’ve lived in several states, but people from Louisiana practically have Louisiana tattooed on them — they love it here,” Morrow says. “They love the culture and they love the food, and if they have a chance to buy something local, they’re going to do it.”
To help keep proud Louisianans stocked with all the fresh strawberries, blueberries and vegetables they can eat, Morrow markets his produce at the Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge and also provides strawberries to Wal-Mart stores throughout the state. He planted about 15 acres for this year’s harvest, making him the third-largest strawberry producer in Louisiana.
“People get excited to see Ponchatoula berries in their local Wal-Mart instead of berries from Florida or California or Mexico,” he adds.
From the Stock Exchange to the Farm
Morrow is a Louisiana native who studied agriculture at Louisiana State University before working as a commodities trader, and later as a stock trader, at the Chicago Stock Exchange. After selling his seat on the exchange in 1998, Morrow returned home to an overgrown farm that had been in his family for eight generations.
“Nearly everything had fallen down,” he recalls. “You couldn’t see up the driveway or even see a house. It was just overgrown with tallow trees, so I spent one month on a ’dozer and cleared the place.” On the cleared fields, he began growing snap beans and strawberries during the day. At night, he rebuilt the homestead’s farmhouse.
At that time, the Red Stick Farmers Market was a fairly new venture, but as a frequent visitor to farmers markets in Chicago and Charlotte, N.C., Morrow thought it was the perfect venue to market the results of his then-fledgling farming operation. His hunch proved right, and today he is a staple at the market three times a week, with offerings that can include berries, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, mustard greens, squash, onions and more.
“The Red Stick Farmers Market is wonderful,” Morrow says. “Every Saturday they can have 3,000 people there watching chefs give cooking demonstrations with produce from the market and offering recipes.”
Catering to Customer Tastes
Morrow says that he has many of the same customers from week to week, no matter what offering he has, and relies on their feedback to help determine what to plant, which is based on what they’re craving at the moment.
“In the summertime, everyone wants a homegrown tomato, fresh blueberries or a cold watermelon,” he says. “Everyone has ‘seasons of tastes,’ and I want to give them that tomato they eat over the kitchen sink.”
In addition to providing the staples that his customers have grown to love, such as sweet corn, onions and potatoes, Morrow also likes to experiment with new produce. Three years ago, he purchased 6,000 blueberry bushes from a grower in Florida. Instead of planting them in the ground, he planted each bush in black plastic pots, which are grouped together outside.
Morrow says that growing the blueberries in containers not only allows him to have more bushes per acre, it makes fertilizer and irrigation applications more efficient.
He began supplying strawberries to Wal-Mart five years ago, and hopes that his blueberry production will increase enough that he will be able to distribute blueberries to local stores in the next few years. Morrow says that he knows that the farmers market is “the root of his business,” but he does admit he gets huge personal satisfaction from seeing his product on store shelves.
“I walk into Wal-Mart, see my berries and think ‘I have arrived,’” he says.