SPRINGFIELD – Trey Harris carved his niche in his early 20s as owner of a successful Ponchatoula seafood market, but he has added another endeavor to his credentials over the last year.
By nature of Ponchatoula’s association to strawberries, the sweet and succulent fruit gave crawfish, shrimp and crabs a run for the money. Demand for strawberries became so strong that Harris took things a step further when he sought to lease a strawberry farm from Springfield farmers J.C. and Margaret Blahut, whose pastures had been dormant since the August 2016 flood.
He visited the with family, stayed a night with them and made an offer the next day.
“They told me I was crazy,” Harris said.
He now has dreams of a strawberry farm that will rival the success of his seafood business. From the look of things, he’s well on his way.
In one year of work, he is already seeing the fruits of his labor. Harris landed a deal to supply strawberries to the Rouse’s Supermarket locations in Hammond, Ponchatoula and Denham Springs.
The deal will soon blossom further when the Harris Farm Strawberries find their way to Baton Rouge locations.
“We’re both based here in Louisiana, so I’m very proud to be affiliated with them,” he said. “They take care of me and promote my strawberries as a local product, which is a good selling point.”
Harris and the crew who worked under Blahut revived the five acres, which include 65,000 strawberry plants from four variations.
The move into the farming was an anomaly on several fronts for Harris. He entered the business at age 42, a rarity because most farmers are descendants of families whose roots go back several generations in agriculture.
His success as a small-town operation bucks the trend in an era when national and international conglomerates dominate agribusiness.
While just 14.5 percent of the fresh fruit Americans purchased from 1998-2000 was imported, the total amount of imported fresh fruit swelled to nearly 28 percent by 2016, according to newamericaneconomy.org.
For fresh vegetables, imports as a share of total spending climbed from 17.1 to 31.2 percent during the same period. Adjusted to constant dollars, that meant the share of produce that was imported grew by 79.3 percent overall.
“Most of the industry has downsized or farmers have gotten out of it altogether,” Harris said. “For me, this is an opportunity.
“People think I’m crazy, but I couldn’t be in a better place than I am with J.C. Blahut, who is a pioneer and legend in the strawberry industry.”
Harris spent very little time on farms before he acquired the strawberry business. He admits he has had a little help from his friends along the way.
“J.C. and Margaret have been my mentors, and I now look at them like family,” he said.
Blahut and Dick Wall, both lifelong Springfield residents, were among the leaders in the industry at their prime. They grew more than 1 million strawberry plants in the 1990s, according to Harris.
Blahut was a previous grand champion for strawberry flats at the annual Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival.
Harris also received advice from Livingston Parish County Agent Kenny Sharpe, who has advised him on soil issues and the proper levels of fertilizers. But Sharpe and the Blahuts have also advised Harris not to deviate from the formula of success that made the farm a success for two generations.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Harris said.
Harris grows four variations of strawberries – Festival, Camino Real, Cama Rosa and San Andreas. Festival strawberries taste the sweetest and will likely sell best, he said.
He said he has learned a wealth about strawberries over the last few years. He has also developed a greater level of respect of the work farmers and their assistants.
“It’s dawn to dusk, seven days a week, and I don’t where I’d be without my workers,” Harris said. “The farmer gets all the credit, but it’s my workers who really hold things together.”
Success hasn’t come with fears and challenges. Harris feared his crops – and the investment of time and money – would go down the tubes early this year when record cold temperatures blanketed the area.
“We lost a ton of blooms and strawberries,” Harris said. “I thought it would be total loss and a huge nightmare, but it has come around nicely since then.”
Threats of hail also rock the cart. Harris and his crew must scramble to cover crops during threats of hail, which can obliterate the crops.
It’s a different scenario than Harris faces in the seafood industry, in which the retailer can make a seven-day payment to the fishermen for a guaranteed product.
“But the strawberry industry is the biggest gamble of my life,” he said. “I’ve put tens of thousands of dollars into this, but there’s no reward without great weather.”
He also plans to remain in Springfield, which he considers as much a strawberry capitol as Ponchatoula.
“My heart is in Ponchatoula, but my home is in Springfield,” Harris said.
Harris has no plans to abandon the seafood market in Ponchatoula, which he runs with his parents Johnny and Brenda Harris, and his Rachael. He hopes to incorporate his three kids – Savannah, Rowen and Amelia – into the mix.
“I’d never give up what I have with the seafood market,” Harris said. “I love the strawberry industry, but there’s no reason I can’t be successful with both.”