Berry pickers create headaches for deputies

OKEECHOBEE — The complaints may be filed with the sheriff’s office as a suspicious person or maybe trespassing, but regardless of how they are listed they all refer to people picking palmetto berries on private property.

Deputies with the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) are staying busy this month responding to numerous trespassing complaints. Sheriff’s office records show deputies have responded to 35 berry picker complaints from Aug. 5 through Aug. 16.

“We had 14 complaints today (Monday, Aug. 14),” said Sheriff Noel Stephen.

And, it seems, no one’s property is off limits.

Wednesday, Aug. 16, three men and three women were found picking palmetto berries on property owned by Okeechobee County. OCSO Deputy William Jolly’s report indicated they were found on property to the west of the Okeechobee County Airport, 2800 N.W. 20th Trail.

According to his report he noticed the paths of several vehicles while on patrol.

“I followed the vehicle trails and found someone had been entering the county property to pick saw palmetto berries without permission. The indication of berry picking was the stalks and trash left behind,” stated the deputy’s report.

After locating the six people, Deputy Jolly told them they had to leave and that they were being trespassed from the airport and the property surrounding it.

“All parties were advised if they returned, they would be arrested,” added the deputy.

Actually catching someone trespassing to pick berries is relatively rare. Normally, indicate the reports, the transgressors are gone by the time deputies arrive.

But, on those occasions when law enforcement does encounter the interlopers, deputies will try to talk to them instead of immediately taking them to the Okeechobee County Jail on a misdemeanor charge of trespassing.

“We try to educate them and keep them on property where they’re permitted. But, they end up gong onto other people’s properties,” said Sheriff Stephen.

Fortunately for deputies and property owners, the berry picking season is relatively short. It normally starts in early August and will last through the early part of September. The sheriff said the market for these berries could be anywhere from 50 cents a pound to over $3 per pound.

Saw palmetto berries, which grow wild in the Southeast — primarily in Florida and Georgia — have been picked and used to promote prostate health since the late 1800s by strengthening the bladder.

The Mayans crushed the berries and drank them as a tonic, while the Seminoles used them as an antiseptic. Some people in the Far East believe the berries are a powerful aphrodisiac.

Some 80 percent of the world’s palmetto berry supply comes from Florida.

And while the act of picking berries is legal, harvesting them on private property without the property owner’s written permission constitutes trespassing, said OCSO public information officer Michele Bell.

“If you don’t have written permission, you may be arrested for trespassing and could face additional charges of grand theft,” she added.

While palmetto berries may have medicinal benefits, they create major headaches for law enforcement and property owners alike.

Saw palmetto leaves and fruit. Photo credit: SFRC, University of Florida

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