As a southern Louisiana family grows, so do the opportunities

The origin of Liuzza Produce Farm, Inc. near Tickfaw, La., goes back to when Anthony Liuzza’s great-grandfather started farming years ago in southern Louisiana. Some of that same land is still farmed by Anthony and his family. His two sons, Joey and Kevin, are fifth-generation farmers and active in several connected businesses. Anthony’s wife, Lucinda, sister, Cindy, and daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, are also part of the growing operations.

Anthony’s father, Joe, started a small gardening business. Anthony grew up working in the strawberry fields. After he graduated high school in 1975, Anthony joined his father in the family produce business. They incorporated the business in 1980 and have been growing ever since. The business now owns over 500 acres of land. In mid-October there were still 100 acres of cabbage growing on land where cucumbers and summer squash had previously been harvested. Planting of 100 acres of strawberries started on September 26. Other crops include 50 acres of bell peppers, 50 acres of tomatoes, 100 acres of cucumbers on trellises and 40 to 50 acres of summer squash. Next year, they plan to include 67 acres of cantaloupe on strawberry ground and still undetermined number of acres of miscellaneous crops including eggplant, okra, pumpkins, mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower and snap beans.

Anthony says, “My ancestor’s main farming was carried on in March, April and May. We now have to farm year-round and do a lot of double-cropping. We have to get the most out of every acre.”

Labor intensive strawberries

After the strawberries are planted they are watered as needed with overhead sprinklers. Once they get established and colder weather starts to set in, watering is changed to drip irrigation. Drip is the irrigation of choice for the entire farming operation. As the nights turn cold, the plants are protected with a combination of row covers and mini row tunnels. During the coldest weather, both are used. Harvesting starts around November 15 and continues into April. The covers are constantly being removed and replaced for temperature fluctuations and harvesting. To facilitate harvesting over the five-month period, picking is all done by hand. Anthony says, “If we had to sell at national market prices, we couldn’t make it work. We are able to receive a premium for our crop.” That premium price is made possible by a high demand during that time of year for high-quality fruit within a day’s drive of the farms. Most of the crop is sold in Louisiana and neighboring Mississippi. Having three open-air markets and support from large retailers helps. The high demand is filled from a supply of 230 acres of strawberries in Louisiana. Liuzza strives to supply the sweetest, juiciest strawberries possible.

group of kids shows off the summer squash they were able to pick during their tour of Liuzza Farm.

Spring and summer growing

Cantaloupe planting starts on the strawberry ground as soon as the strawberry harvest ends. Squash and cucumber harvesting starts the first of May. Peppers and tomatoes are harvested starting in mid-May and continuing until July 10. While a few plants are bought from nurseries, most plants are grown from seed that Liuzza starts in the farm’s own greenhouses. The seed starting is timed so plants will be ready to set out as the previous crop on the designated ground starts to fade.

Other than occasional broadcast fertilization before a crop goes in, all fertilizing is done through the drip irrigation system. The amounts are determined by regular tissue testing. The crops are fed what they need based on their degree of maturation and requirements at that time.

All cucumbers are now grown on trellises. Research has shown that yields can be increased dramatically by growing them off the ground. The labor required to build the trellis and grow the plants on them is made up with easier harvesting of bigger yields.

Liuzza grows only Creole tomatoes, which southern Louisiana is known for. A tomato named “Creole” was first developed by Louisiana State University around 1956. The official Louisiana state vegetable plant is the Creole tomato. But there is no longer a specific cultivar maintained as the “Creole Tomato.” It is the location, climate, shape, color and taste that make a Creole tomato. Liuzza Produce Farm grows in the heart of that area.

Growing challenges

This year’s summer and fall crops were hurt by tropical depression Lee. The 20 inches of rain over four days caused many crops that were in full flower to not set fruit. Tomatoes, peppers and squash were hit hardest. Even with conditions like Lee, Anthony says weather is no longer the farm’s number one challenge. That distinction now goes to government regulation, and immigration policies in particular.

The work is labor-intensive. There are 20 full-time, year-round employees. Seventy workers are brought in the first of September to work into June. Another 70 are hired in February to work until June. Local labor is nonexistent – at least labor that will enable them to sell their produce at a price the consumer can pay and still allow for a profit. Anthony reports, “It’s a combination of factors. Even though the H-2A rate is $8.97 an hour, we can’t get local workers. Between the oil and chemical companies continually needing people, and the fact that most locals don’t like the hot (or cold) and dry (or wet) outdoor labor, we just can’t compete.” The farm’s only available labor source is the H-2A program, and the hoops a grower now has to jump through to get those workers is time-consuming and expensive.

Growing through marketing

Liuzza uses a variety of channels to market over 500,000 packages of fresh produce annually. They started selling to Wal-Mart in 1996 from 20 acres of strawberry plants. Winn-Dixie and Associated Grocers are now also customers. When these markets first started, there wasn’t the emphasis that there now is on local growers. Recently, one of the farm’s customers shared that its sales of particular produce items increased by 25 to 30 percent per month when the fact that the produce was local was advertised.

In order to better serve the chain market and prepare for expanding to a larger geographical area, Anthony’s son Kevin has started Kevin Liuzza Farm, LLC. Besides being farm manager for Liuzza Produce Farm, he grows on farms near Tickfaw and Amite, La., and he is building a large packing shed and cooler operation to handle processing for the combined operations’ crops.

A couple of boys show off the strawberries they picked as part of their tour of the Liuzza Farm operation.

The family-owned Berry Town Produce stands are another important market for Liuzza produce. Cindy came to Anthony and Lucinda in 1993. “She was very ambitious and looking for something other than working for someone else,” he said. “My wife, Lucinda, and I helped her start the first open-air produce stand in Ponchatoula.” Since then, two more stores have opened in Hammond. Cindy’s husband, Ronny, now manages Berry Town. Their son, Justin, manages shipping and receiving for the operations. The operations are definitely family-centered.

While they specialize in farm-fresh crops from Liuzza Farm Produce, they also carry produce from other local area growers. In addition, they carry locally produced breads, jams, strawberry wine and other related products. Anthony says, “The joint family effort helps us move more produce.” He also says the combination of their own stores and selling to the chains works well. Some people who prefer one-stop shopping are pleased to get Liuzza fresh produce with their other groceries, and people that are first introduced to their products in the chains may check out the Berry Town stores for specialty items.

Growing the future market

The latest family venture is looking ahead to the future purchasers of fresh fruits and vegetables. Elizabeth started Liuzza Land with the purpose of educating elementary, middle and high school students on the origin of much of the food they eat. Liuzza Land’s first sessions last spring reached over 1,000 students. This fall’s program had 1,500 registered by October 1.

Elizabeth has a preschooler and has always loved working with children. She is applying what she wants her own child to learn to the program. She found and converted a large wagon that carries about 75 people. Attendees spend about 30 minutes touring the farm and learning what goes into the production and harvesting of the crops in season. They hear about labor and weather issues as well as other details. They get to pick their own strawberries in the spring and corn and pumpkins in the fall. There is a higher rate in the fall to cover additional features, such as a corn maze.

The location, 45 miles south of Baton Rouge and about the same north of New Orleans, is ideal for this type of attraction. Interest in the tours continues to grow. Local chain stores are supporting this endeavor by sponsoring students’ admission and transportation costs. There is now some pressure to provide more access to the general public. Elizabeth says, “That has to be balanced with all the ‘real’ farm work that constantly has to be done.”

It’s too early to tell how this new venture is going to impact overall sales, but one incidence might provide some insight. One young girl, when given the clamshell package for the strawberries she was to pick, commented, “My mom just bought some of these at Wal-Mart.”

A group scheduled for mid-October had 93 students and 67 chaperones. Elizabeth says, “That’s up to 67 parents that are going to see our production also.”

As the Liuzza family operations grow, there just seems to be more ideas and ways to facilitate continued growth in spite of the challenges.

The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.