Ponchatoula strawberries are the stuff of local legend.
The deep red berries have a certain hold over the folks in this small, southeastern Louisiana town, which once saw one of its mayors go head-to-head with local authorities over the right to claim his town as the “Strawberry Capital of the World.”
“Louisiana has the best berries,” Anna Mae Mixon proudly boasted. “They’re the sweetest.”
She should know—the 82-year-old Ponchatoula native grew up in the shadow of the strawberry farming industry. Mixon and the other Ponchatoula children used to attend school from July to March, enduring sweltering Louisiana summers in a classroom so that they would be let out in time to help the town’s farmers pick, stem and package that year’s strawberry harvest.
“It’s hard work,” she said.
Mixon’s small clapboard house sits directly alongside the famed Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, held once a year to pay homage not only to those sweet strawberries at the height of the harvest, but also to the heyday of strawberry farming in Louisiana. In the early 20th century, Ponchatoula was one strawberry field after another. As new technology allowed for refrigerated railcars so strawberry harvests could be transported farther away by train, there was a boom of strawberry farmers in Louisiana. By 1931—which some locals say was the peak of strawberry farming in Ponchatoula—Louisiana boasted 23,500 acres of strawberry farms.
But end the of World War II also brought the beginning of the end of farming as a way of life for many of Ponchatoula’s young men who had become enticed by better-paying industrial jobs. The lure of a steady income without the backbreaking work of farm life led to dwindling acres of strawberry plants, a trend that would sweep the entire state.
Compared to the strawberry boom of 80 years ago, in 2014 there were only 81 Louisiana strawberry growers producing strawberries on 367 acres, according to the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. Tangipahoa Parish, where Ponchatoula is located, was the state’s lead strawberry producing parish with $19.3 million in sales.
Ponchatoula farmer William Fletcher has seen the changes to his town’s pride and joy, both good and bad, since he was a little boy out on his grandfather’s strawberry farm.
“We still have strawberry farmers in Ponchatoula farming the same ground their parents, grandparents, great grandparents did,” he said. “We’re still bringing the same quality product they did.”
The six acres of the Fletcher Family Farm have been with his family for five generations, though it was a bigger operation back then.
After Fletcher’s grandfather died in 1976, the family’s farming operations turned from strawberries to cattle, then ceased altogether a few years later. William Fletcher’s father had insisted he get a stable, good paying job, and Fletcher did just that—graduating from Louisiana State University and going to work in the mortgage industry.
But in 1998, the year Fletcher turned 30, he felt the farm calling.
“Some of my favorite memories as a kid was hanging out in the strawberry fields,” he said. “This is not steady, this is not guaranteed, but this is where my heart always was.”
The strawberry industry Fletcher once knew as a kid is long gone. Now, married to his college sweetheart with three young sons, Fletcher is a proud farmer. He was even named the festival’s Strawberry King in 2003.
“A lot of the farms that were in the area 100 years ago, even 30 years ago are now places like Something-Something shopping center,” he said.
But there is a renewed interesting in buying fresh and buying local. The pride of Ponchatoula can now be seen in everything from the town sign with a strawberry design to the small strawberry logos that decorate each of the town’s street signs.
“I think that’s kind of what the allure of the Ponchatoula strawberry is,” he said. “They’re coming to celebrate the strawberry harvesting and I think a lot of that gets lost as we move farther away from it.”
While strawberry production has dwindled in Louisiana over the years, the appetite for them has not.
The juicy berries continue to be major draw for fruit fiends across the country, evolving from a once-seasonal fruit into part of America’s year-round daily diet thanks to extended growing practices that allow longer, multiple harvests and imported fruit.
But not all strawberries are created equal, as any good Louisiana native will claim.
“The strawberries for some reason are better here,” said Doris Starnes. “They’re meatier.”
Starnes and her friend Susan McMillan made the hour-long drive from New Orleans to the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, where, in addition to flats upon flats of strawberries, festivalgoers noshed on all things strawberry: strawberry shortcake, strawberry kabobs, deep fried strawberries and strawberry daiquiris.
Starnes and McMillan came for both the strawberries—deep-fried and otherwise—and for the atmosphere.
“It’s our second year,” McMillan said. “We like the country feel of the festival.”
Though Ponchatoula residents and visitors remain fiercely loyal to their homegrown berries, they have a hard time putting a finger on what exactly makes them so special.
Mixon said she spent so many years harvesting Ponchatoula strawberries that she simply knows she’s right about her berries.
Starnes thinks it might have something to do with the soil, possibly nutrients that have been carried down south by the Mississippi River.
And maybe something else too, she said.
Sarah Netter is an Emmy-nominated journalist who lives in New Orleans with her young son and neurotic dog. In addition to Paste, her work has appeared on ABCNews.com and “World News with Diane Sawyer.”