PONCHATOULA, La. (WVUE) - They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.
From Friday, April 8 through Sunday, April 10, the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, one of the state’s largest free events second only to Mardi Gras, will return for its 50th year after a two-year absence related to pandemic shutdowns.
Typically, when it’s festival season in Ponchatoula, the number of visitors in town outweighs the number of residents (7,600, according to the most recent census) for three days straight.
After being shuttered for two years during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the highly-anticipated festival is making its return, and a sense of normalcy is being restored.
“We’re looking forward to record-breaking crowds this weekend,” said Kim Melancon of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “The draw, of course, is our quaint little city and the fair is behind the main drag. Be sure to visit 6th Street and Memorial Park.”
Melancon said that non-profit organizations will be set up all around the park selling strawberries, food, drinks, merchandise, and memorabilia to raise money for various causes that benefit the local community.
“The draw really is to support these people with our strawberry fare and to benefit our area farmers,” Melancon said.
While strawberries were once a major cash crop for Louisiana in decades past, most of the state’s production is now concentrated in the southern parts of Tangipahoa and Livingston Parishes. As the number of farms has dwindled down in recent years, a small legion of farms in the Florida Parishes is still fiercely keeping alive an industry in an area that led the nation in the innovation of the crop.
On Pine Street, in the center of town, Trey Harris is known for two things, having the juiciest, biggest, and reddest crawfish and strawberries around at his shop Harris Seafood. Harris is a strawberry farmer that represents the industry on a state level and has gone to great lengths to keep traditions alive. When pandemic shutdowns first began two years ago, Harris took the unusual step to sell his competitors’ berries at his shop to keep promoting and moving berries at a time without the crop’s main event, the festival.
“As you know, we haven’t had a festival in two years to this is a big big deal for all our local farmers,” Harris said. “We’ll have lots of representation from Livingston and Tangipahoa Parish and we are looking for this festival to be the biggest of all time.”
Harris says the crop will peak for this weekend’s festival as warm weather moves in this week and production will slow as a cold front is expected to move through the area after the weekend.
As far as business goes, the festival returning has a ripple effect. Harris noted that there aren’t many farmers left and advised shoppers buying strawberries to look for that mandated Louisiana label so that farmers can cover their costs.
“Everyone from the New Orleans area and beyond, we need y’all,” Harris said. “Buy Louisiana strawberries.”
Aside from being known as the “Strawberry Capital of the World”, Ponchatoula is also known for its antique and gift shops frequented by locals and visitors on weekends. Commerce after a pandemic and Hurricane Ida has resulted in mixed factors for some but all business owners agree that the festival returning gives them visibility again.
“In some aspects of our business we saw profits skyrocket during the pandemic because more locals stayed home to shop with us,” said Casey Robert, owner of the home decor and gift shop Chaleuroux on Pine Street. “But the festival is like a homecoming for all of us. Some people that haven’t been to Ponchatoula will come to the festival and when they see us we get to remind them that we’re here and we’ll be ready when you’re ready to shop with us.”
Robert also said that the festival helps remind the world that, for a small city, Ponchatoula has its own personality.
“I feel like sometimes we’re viewed as quiet and quaint and just a suburb of somewhere bigger like Hammond or New Orleans,” Robert said. “But the truth is, we have our own identity and traditions here that are unique to us.”
Part of that identity is an affection for the arts. Not only does the city produce artistic people, but it also directly affects the local economy as there are several art studios downtown.
Artist Mandy Mae Poche began her studio downtown two years ago and has been experiencing an uptick in commissions as the festival dates draw nearer.
“I have no idea what to expect and it’s exciting and kind of scary at the same time,” Poche said. “I do know it’s going to bring a great crowd and can’t wait to learn this year and take that into what I do next year.”
Like Poche, the Downtown Revitalization Program was started just over two years ago and first-time director Faith Allen Peterson is navigating her first festival year now that it’s returning.
“We’ve had a lot of new shops and new restaurants come in the last two years, but I don’t really know what this is going to look like just yet,” Peterson said. “Downtown has been buzzing lately on a typical Saturday and now you add special events in the mix. People think Strawberry Festival is just the fair at the park but it’s also on the side streets and downtown.”
Ahead of the weekend’s main event, the people of Ponchatoula expressed pride in showing the world what it has to offer. From the iconic daiquiris made from scratch at Paul’s Cafe to the chocolate-covered berries you can buy from the window of one of several storefronts, people seemed to be ready to have a piece of their identity back and leave all cares behind.
For more information about the festival and a schedule of events, visit the festival’s website here.
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Copyright 2022 WVUE. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2022 WVUE. All rights reserved.