Local saw palmetto berries are big business in August

OKEECHOBEE — As Brian Kelley watched the two stocky young men pour the saw palmetto berries into a plastic bin, he said it took him about six hours over a period of three days to pick the 610 pounds of berries.

“You can’t do it all in one day — it’ll kill you,” said the Okeechobee native, who added that he picked the berries from an area about 4 to 5 acres in size.

The acreage belongs to an older friend of his and, because of that, Mr. Kelley was going to give all of the money to his friend. The friend, he added, had helped him in the past and now it was his turn to give back.

And at the current rate of $1.60 per pound, Mr. Kelley gave a lot to his friend.
Saw palmetto berries have been around for centuries and used for a number of herbal remedies.

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

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

For these reasons, saw palmetto berries are a big business. And, unlike Mr. Kelley, many people are willing to break the law to harvest the herb.

The berries may have medicinal benefits, but those who pick them are the sources of major headaches for area law enforcement when they violate trespass laws to harvest the berries.

Deputies from the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) has received numerous complaints in the last week dealing with people trespassing on private property.

In one case, Deputy Brant Harden responded to a call on U.S. 441 North regarding an estimated 20 men on a woman’s property.

“She has advised them to leave, but they won’t,” state OCSO dispatcher notes of the Aug. 13 incident.

In another case, Deputy DeMarcus Dixon responded to an Aug. 12 complaint on N.E. 84th Avenue where he actually found a young woman picking berries.

“I told her she was trespassed from the property and could face criminal charges if she returned to the property,” stated the deputy’s report.

There were two more similar complaints handled by other deputies that same day. Both of those incidents occurred in the northeastern portion of the county.

OCSO deputies also worked two similar trespass complaints Wednesday, Aug. 19. In one of those complaints Deputy William Jolly documented how a man returned to his N.E. 26th Ave. home to find “… fresh, muddy tire tracks coming off his driveway.”

As he looked about his property he also found footprints within 20 feet of his home. Then he found more footprints leading to a wooded pasture where someone had crossed a gate.

Upon further inspection he found palmetto berry stems, berries, two water bottles and a shirt.

“I am concerned whoever had the nerve to enter my property without my permission might come back,” said the property owner to the deputy.

Every day, the sheriff’s office receives these types of complaints throughout the month of August and into September.

And even though berry picking may sound easy, it’s anything but. Besides the scorching heat, palmetto berry pickers have to deal with wasps, mosquitoes and rattlesnakes — all, of which, like to call the dense plant home.

Lalo and Frankie Vargas know full well what pickers have to go through to harvest saw palmetto berries — they used to battle the blazing sun and unfriendly insects. But, now, they work in the shade of a tarp where they weigh the berries picked by others.

Frankie (left) and Lalo (right) Vargas kept busy Wednesday, Aug. 19, buying and loading saw palmetto berries from local pickers that will be trucked to Fort Myers then sold. Photo by Okeechobee News/Eric Kopp.

Frankie (left) and Lalo (right) Vargas kept busy Wednesday, Aug. 19, buying and loading saw palmetto berries from local pickers that will be trucked to Fort Myers then sold. Photo by Okeechobee News/Eric Kopp.

Once the two Fort Myers brothers have weighed the herbs, they hoist the containers onto a flatbed trailer and dump the contents into plastic containers that hold up to 1,000 pounds of berries.

Frankie was quick to point out they use industrial scales that are calibrated by the state and pointed to the green inspection tag stuck on the scale.

Lalo, 20, and Frankie, 17, work for their father Frank Vargas.

Wednesday, the Vargas brothers were paying $1.60 per pound for the berries. But, both said the market price fluctuates almost daily.

“I’ve seen it as high as $3,” said Frankie of the per-pound rate.

Every night the brothers fasten down the containers and take them to Fort Myers, where they are then sold to the highest bidder. Sometimes their load is light. Then, sometimes, all 10 containers on the trailer are filled to the brim with berries.

Lalo said the berry-picking season starts in early August and continues into September.

“It lasts a good month,” he added.

According to the Swanson Health Products web page 80 percent of world’s saw palmetto berry supply comes from Florida. It’s also noted on that page that Valensa Intl., of Eustis, is the only worldwide supplier of certified organic saw palmetto berries.

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