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El Nino may sink Louisiana farmers

The drenching start to 1998 has strawberry farmers in Louisiana facing the prospect of a third consecutive bad year.

For consumers, it would mean shortages and higher prices. For farmers, it could mean disaster."Personally, I couldn't stand another bad year," farmer Jackie Kup-per said.

He said he and many other small berry farmers already have had to cut back on planting. It costs about $2,000 to put in an acre of strawberries - a lot more expensive than most crops - so a couple of bad years really hurt, Kupper said.

"It's like rolling dice," he said.

Heavy rains this week and the continued threat of El Nino, combined with an unusually wet January, have strawberry growers worried.

"If it would quit raining now, we could still have a pretty good crop," Kupper said. The wet conditions bring on root rot and other diseases that hurt production, he said.

"We need some good sunshiny weather," said Jimmy Boudreaux, a strawberry specialist at Louisiana State University. "There's more gray mold than I would like to see."

While the mold hurts berry production, it doesn't mean disaster, particularly if the spring is relatively dry, he said.

"Anytime you have this much rain you can run into problems" with berry molds and other diseases, said Kenneth Whitam of LSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

Rain has hurt California strawberry farmers even more, he said. That damage, combined with less acreage in strawberries and any disease problem, will cause a shortage of berries that will keep the price high, Whitam said.

Kupper said prices have been good with growers getting $12 a flat for their berries. The price always falls after Easter, he said. Last year, Louisiana farmers got an average of $6.70 a flat, he said.

More rain began falling Thursday from northern California up to Seattle, soon after Vice President Al Gore suggested storm-battered residents should think about moving.

On Wednesday, Gore heard from residents whose lives have been disrupted by the string of storms that has battered the West Coast. Some residents, driven by rising water or falling mud, have been out of their homes since Feb. 7.

"When you have repeat flooding, repeat disaster, that's an indication that you have to at least consider relocation," he said.

Gore also met with federal, state and local officials and said the Clinton administration would speed up the release of some $263 million for emergency rebuilding statewide.

Another $20 million would be made available for road repairs and $17 million would go to repair levees in the north, Gore said.