With berries drawing more than $2 per pound, rising numbers of people are picking them. Here's what that means for Flagler County.
A tan pickup truck swung into the parking lot of K+M Mower Repair on U.S. 1, and two sweating, dirt-smeared men hopped out, their arms wrapped around bulging gunny sacks, and hefted them onto a scale.
As she weighed their bags of palmetto berries, Laurie Reggie Went, 36, asked them where their Mercedes was. Sometimes the men — both berry pickers — drive one.
“That’s $379, boys,” she said, reading the numbers on the scale and plugging them into a calculator. “Not bad for a rainy day.”
Picking palmetto berries can bring in good money.
Went’s father, 61-year-old Reggie Went, emptied the olive-size, lime-colored berries into one of four square, waist-high 1,100-pound bins. The Wents, buying the berries from local pickers and reselling them to distributors for use in herbal remedies for prostate health, often fill five or six such bins in a day.
Once berries’ price passes $2 per pound, all kinds of people start picking, scouring the local woodlands after their day jobs. Pickers were getting $2.40 when the tan truck arrived. Sometimes, families bring in two bins — filled with berries worth about $5,000 — from a couple days’ work. They can’t hold the berries longer than that before selling them, or they’ll go bad.
But it’s rough work.
“They’re working hard to try to put food on their tables,” Reggie Went said.
He knows. He used to pick.
The berries come from saw palmettos, a shrub that forms dense thickets about as high as a person, where its toothed fronds slice through bare skin. Pickers often wear heavy pants and, sometimes, long-sleeve shirts.
“If you see a bunch of scratches on their arms, you know they’re pickers,” Laurie Went said.
The berries draw bees and wasps and are often crawling with ants, and pickers wear gloves for protection. Diamondback and pygmy rattlesnakes are known to coil at the bases of the palmetto trunks. Pickers wear boots and hope a snake doesn’t strike too high.
Then there’s the heat: The sparse pinelands and sandy scrublands where the palmettos grow provide only narrow, trunk-width patches of relief from the Florida sun. The season starts in mid-August and runs through October.
As the hours drag on and the Florida sun slow-burns through pickers’ energy, the cuts made with their machetes can become less precise. Fatigue can cause pickers to miss the early signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The hornets’ nest tucked between the palm fronds, or the cottonmouth sunning itself in an open patch of ground, might go unnoticed.
In the big palmetto fruit boom of 1995, news reports showed that four pickers died after being bitten by snakes, and another drowned crossing a canal.
‘ROTTEN CHEESE STEEPED IN TOBACCO JUICE’
Saw palmettos and their berries have long been used by people. Various Native American civilizations — the Calusa and Tequesta, and later the Seminole — ate the berries and used them in medicines and as an antiseptic. Mayans crushed the berries and used them in a tonic.
Florida’s Spanish settlers ate the berries in the 1500s, and began exporting them to Europe in 1602, according to “Botanical Medicines: The Desk Reference for Major Herbal Supplements,” by Dennis J. Mckenna and Kenneth Jones.
Settlers, forced to eat the berries when they couldn’t find anything else, called the taste foul.
Jonathan Dickinson, a Quaker merchant who shipwrecked with his family on the southeast Florida coast in the late 1690s on a trip from Jamaica to Philadelphia, wrote in an account of his trials that the local Native American people kept large stores of the berries in their homes.
But, starving though they were, Dickinson and his shipmates could hardly bear to eat them.
“We tasted them, but not one amongst us could suffer them to stay in our mouths; for we could compare them to nothing else, but rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice,” Dickinson wrote. Dickinson and the other survivors adjusted. By the time he and the remaining members of his party — five died — reached safety in St. Augustine, Dickinson wrote, “We found our palates so changed by eating of berries that we could not relish the taste of salt any more than if it had no saltness in it.”
Eaten raw, the berries can make a taster’s mouth tingle.
According to “Botanical Medicines” : “Seminole Indians warned against eating a serving of more than five berries at once, claiming that too many would cause the mouth to burn. Today, the Seminoles make a drink from the juice to which sugar is added.”
The berries were used as an aromatic ingredient in Cognac, and, in the early 1800s, were mixed into a carbonated drink called Metto, sold in Miami. Women took them in the belief that they increased breast size; men took them in the hope of curing impotence, according to “Botanical Medicines.”
By the 1800s, the berries were used for a range of medical complaints, and were used as a sexual stimulant. “Botanical Medicines” lists some of the conditions they were said to treat, among them: rheumatism, anemia, asthma, the common cold, alcoholism, breast atrophy and ovarian atrophy, dysentery, gonorrhea, diarrhea, urinary tract infections and incontinence, prostate gland enlargement and male impotence.
The 1926 United States Dispensary listed them as a treatment for enlarged prostate, and the U.S. Pharmacopoeia and National Formulary listed them as an official drug at various times from 1906 to 1950, according to “Botanical Medicines.”
Use of the berries for prostate health flagged in the United States after World War II but remained strong in Europe, especially in Germany and France.
In the U.S. today, the berries are used in various herbal supplements that don’t have to undergo the strict testing required of products that are labeled as regular medicine. In European countries such as Germany where they’ve received government approval for medicinal use, the berries are used in conventional medicine and regularly prescribed by doctors.
MEN WITH MACHETES
But long before the berries, distilled into pill form, land in the hands of a patient, they’re taken raw into the hands of a picker like the ones in Flagler County.
And too often, law enforcement officials say, picking causes problems. Flagler County Agricultural and Ranch Deputy Steve Williams laid out a not-uncommon scenario: A homeowner looks out their window and sees a group of machete wielding men step out of a nearby woodline. The homeowner, fearing a potential burglary, or worse, calls the police.
It can scare hikers, too. “You got a guy jumping out of the woods with a machete in his hand, it’ll scare them half to death,” Williams said. “And they’re just picking berries, but they don’t know that.”
Palmetto berry picking season has long been a bane of local law enforcement agencies in areas that produce large amounts of berries, especially when those berries are overwhelmingly located on lands where people aren’t supposed to pick them — on state or local park property, for instance, or on the private property of landowners who don’t want pickers to intrude.
Flagler County has an ordinance banning the picking of berries on county-owned land. But that hasn’t stopped pickers from scouring those properties anyway.
“We see them all over: Princess Place, River-to-Sea, Mala Compra, Varn Park, Jungle Hut,” Flagler County Land Management Coordinator Mike Lagasse said.
“Beachside has been hit real hard,” Williams said. “It’s probably been two or three calls a day we’re going in there. When the berry prices get up close to $3 a pound … now you’ve got people that normally wouldn’t go out to do it, because hey — this is extra Christmas money.”
Flagler County Sheriff’s Office deputies have tended to give berry pickers a warning, make them dump their loot, and send them on their way, sometimes with a trespass order that bars them from returning to the property where they were caught picking.
The berry pickers Williams catches aren’t always aware that they’re breaking the law.
Sometimes they begin their picking on land that they have permission to pick on, but then cross over an unmarked boundary into land where they’re not allowed. Or they think they have permission to pick at a location, but they got that permission from someone who didn’t have authorization to grant it. And sometimes they do know picking on public land is illegal, but they’re desperate — in some cases because they have minor crimes in their background that make getting regular work difficult.
“I feel bad for some of them,” Williams said. “I would rather see them getting berries than breaking into somebody’s house and trying to steal something. … Most private property owners just want to see them trespassed from the property.” But pickers caught with more than $300 worth of berries face felony charges.
Williams said he found a father-and-daughter pair earlier this season picking berries near Ocean Vista.
“They had a little white two-gallon bucket; they said they had heard people were making money. … They had no idea that it was against the law on county land,” he said. Williams gave them a warning and sent them on their way.
Although local law enforcement hasn’t aggressively pursued the issue, county staff members, including Lagasse, are considering ways to make Flagler County’s public lands less attractive to pickers.
As things stand, even if the county enforced the law, most pickers would get a $25 fine — not much of a deterrence when berry picking can bring in hundreds of dollars per day.
Many other Florida counties set their fines higher, at $300 or more, and Flagler’s lower fine might be attracting people who know picking on public property is against the law, but plan to do it anyway, Lagasse said. Raising the fine into the hundreds of dollars might deter those pickers, and county staff members are considering drafting an ordinance that would raise the fines.
Reggie Went, the berry collector, doesn’t understand why the state and local governments are so eager to ban the pickers.
“These people go out and pick, and they pay their rent,” he said. “I have probation officers come up to me and say, ‘How’d Johnny come up with all this money?’ I tell them, ‘He’s been out berry picking.’”
“We know five people who have enough now to stay in a hotel room,” his daughter said. “All year. Not just for the season.”
His pickers, Reggie Went said, know they’re not supposed to pick on public lands, or on private lands without permission. Most pick on the land of people they know, or they knock on someone’s door to ask, he said.
But Went acknowledged there’s no way for collectors to know for sure where the berries pickers present at collection stands actually came from. Lagasse and Williams said there are reasons to protect the berries on public land. They’re food for various animals, such as black bears.
“All the animals eat it; it’s a food source for them,” Williams said. “You’re taking it away from them, so now they’re going to have to look elsewhere.”
If private property owners want berry pickers to pick their land — and some do, because the berries attract bees and hornets — that’s fine, Williams and Lagasse said. But pickers shouldn’t be taking from land that’s a public resource.
Lagasse compared pickers who pick on public lands to people who would try to cut down trees in a public forest for firewood or wood to build a fence. Governmental agencies don’t — and shouldn’t — allow that, he said.
As the Wents prepared to shut down their stand in the evening, and a young woman dropped off a day’s haul of 14 pounds — “I went to some terrible places today,” she said, as Laurie Went handed her $32 cash — Reggie Went said the regulations just make life a little harder for poor people willing to work long hours. Some families he knows, Went said, pick as the school year starts so they can send their children to school in clothes that fit.
“It’s a business for the poor people to get ahead,” he said. As for the berries, he said, “We call them pennies from heaven.”