PONCHATOULA, La. - It started out as a small festival in a sleepy town. But in the last four decades, the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival has become the largest free festival in Louisiana, helping to propel the town throughout the year.
The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival has become a mecca for strawberry lovers around the state, drawing crowds of 300,000 in 2010. That's more than 46 times the town's 2010 U.S. Census Bureau population estimate of 6,559.
Organizers hope good weather will draw upwards of 400,000 people to the festival this year.
"The food, the excitement, the rides. It's a lot of fun," said Ponchatoula resident Ashley McCrory.
"It affects us tremendously. Basically our local people can't really move, they're stuck where they are, but we make the best of it," said State Rep. Steve Pugh, R- Ponchatoula, and 2012 Strawberry Festival King.
The entire town, it seems, is involved. Even outside festival grounds, shops like Sew Much More say it's one of the biggest weekends of the year.
"Most of the foot traffic passes through right in front of our store, so with the doors open we entice people to come in and take a look at the merchandise we have," said part-owner Phillip Campo.
For many local non-profits, the festival is their biggest fundraiser. Only non-profit vendors are allowed to sell on official festival grounds, and about 65 organizations do so.
"This fundraiser gives us all the money to run us throughout the year," said Rene Folse, committee member of Boy Scouts Troop 100 in Ponchatoula. "This is our biggest fundraiser."
Of course, the 41-year-old festival is all about the berry. In the self-proclaimed "strawberry capital of the world," growers have been looking forward to the three-day event for months.
"Whew, just getting ready for the berries, it's almost a year round thing, we start in July or August," said Heather Hughes, owner of Ms. Heather's Strawberry Patch.
Organizers say the festival has a $33 million economic impact for the area. Holding the fest in Ponchatoula is no small feat.
"It gets to the point where we even have to shut down exits on the interstate just to let traffic disperse into town before we can allow other people to come in," said festival board member Susan Johnson.
And so, whether you're looking for something fried or chocolate covered, the growing festival is a taste of big crowds in a small town.
The free fest runs from 10 AM to 11 PM Saturday, and from 11 AM to 6 PM Sunday.