Berry big business
Thieves steal valuable berries from publicly owned lands in Southeast; law enforcement fights back
Folkston, Georgia — The thieves, armed with machetes, travel in packs targeting unsuspecting communities with chilling precision.
Sometimes, they’ll hit in the dead of night wearing headlamps as they slink deeper into the forest. Lookouts prowl the roadways alerting the criminals via phone or radio if the authorities approach. Then, with bags full of ill-gotten gains worth thousands of dollars, the bad guys abscond to the next ill-prepared community.
Pine forests on private and public lands, including national wildlife refuges.
Saw palmetto berries.
“A lot of people don’t know about this and question whether they should care about berries,” said Pamela Garrison, a senior federal wildlife officer at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. “They should. These people are stealing berries, selling them and making a profit from plants that are illegally taken from public land.”
Garrison and other wildlife officials note that the berries are also a major food source for black bears and other animals that roam federal refuges and state preserves.
A decade ago, few people knew about the berry burglars. Now, though, picking is big business and law enforcement officials and state legislators are getting busy. When crushed into an extract, the berries are peddled as natural remedies for prostate enlargement, hair loss, libido reduction, you name it. One report estimated the value of the 2019 crop at tens of millions of dollars.
Florida is berry central, given the preponderance of saw palmetto bushes that thrive among the pine trees. But Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas are emerging hotspots. And, with the berry-picking season soon to start, Garrison and other law-enforcement officers are gearing up for a busy, if unusual, fall.
“Up until 2017 I had no idea the magnitude of this business,” said Lt. Sean Patton with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “But it’s a pretty big problem now in Florida because the industry itself is fairly lucrative. Through September, we’ll be pretty busy.”
Supply and demand
Okefenokee — the largest refuge in the eastern U.S. — sprawls across 402,000 acres of swamp, prairie, hammocks, peat beds and cypress, black gum and pine forests. It’s the headwaters for two rivers, the Suwannee and St. Marys. Alligators, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, eastern indigo snakes, red-cockaded woodpeckers and a wealth of at-risk species call the Okefenokee home. It was established in 1937 as a breeding ground for migratory birds. And it’s magnificent, welcoming a half-million photographers, kayakers, hunters and hikers each year to the “Land of the Trembling Earth” as the swamp is known in the Choctaw language.
Some visitors, though, aren’t welcome.
“The first year I was here  I got a call about berry pickers,” said Garrison, the refuge’s only U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law officer. “I had no idea how big an issue it would become.”
Few did. Back then, the berry trade was restricted largely to Florida and centered around Immokalee southwest of the Everglades. Locals and migrant farmworkers fanned out into the public forests and private ranches in search of the ubiquitous saw palmetto bush which grows up to 10 feet high and wide with rock-hard, fan-like leaves. The berries lie near the bush’s base guarded by razor-sharp thorns. Adding to harvesting dangers, rattlesnakes nestle amid leaves to avoid wet ground. Wild hogs are also attracted to the berries.
Bags — and bushels — full of berries are sold to processors who dry, chop and grind them into a powdery extract that’s then sold as pills, powders, liquids or teas. They’re hawked as cures for urinary tract problems associated with enlarged prostate glands, or as palliatives for chronic pelvic pain. Some say they boost sex drives, stop hair loss, or reduce acne. Scientific consensus on the berries’ medicinal benefits, though, remains elusive.
Nonetheless, they are popular. MarketWatch estimated that 8 million pounds worth of berries were processed in 2019, creating revenues of tens of millions of dollars. Last year, in Florida, the price per pound started at about a dollar in August and doubled by season’s end in October, according to the Immokalee Palmetto Street Price page on Facebook. Like every commodity, though, the market fluctuates on supply and demand.
Supplies were low in 2018. Prices soared. Credit, or blame, goes to Mother Nature. It rained a lot in Florida which made the berries fall from the bush rendering them useless. Scarcity, though, pushed prices up threefold over 2017 levels. And that’s when things got interesting in Georgia.
In spring 2017, the infamous West Mims fire scoured more than 150,000 acres of the Okefenokee refuge. Saw palmettos, though, rebound nicely from fire and the 2018 berry crop was outstanding. Pickers from Florida headed north to the Okefenokee.
Garrison busted two dozen berry thieves that year. In one instance, she corralled five adults and one 13-year-old from Branford, Florida. Only the boy spoke English. He told Garrison they didn’t know it was illegal to pick on public land and pleaded, unsuccessfully, to keep one bag to cover expenses. Each picker received a $500 citation. Their names were forwarded to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And their 15 bags of berries, with a street value of $18,000, were confiscated.
“I kind of felt sorry for them,” Garrison said while driving along the refuge’s South End Road, lined with longleaf pines and saw palmettos. “They would have gotten fifty cents per pound. The ringleaders would’ve gotten $4 a pound that year. They can make a ton of money. If you’re sending 50 people to different places each day and they’re coming back with thousands of pounds of berries, the money can easily add up.”
She turned down Swamp Island Drive, another picture-postcard longleaf habitat. A raccoon scampered across the road. Pileated woodpeckers caromed from pine to pine.
“This was burned last year so we’ll probably have some berries here this year,” Garrison said. “There are no pickers in here right now, but they’ll come.”
“An important part of the ecosystem”
Florida, in 2018, cracked down on illegal berry picking. The state agriculture department requires pickers to have a permit and written permission from the landowner. It’s a misdemeanor offense if a picker, buyer or processor doesn’t carry proper paperwork. It’s a felony if the value of the berries exceeds $100,000. It’s illegal to pick on state-managed lands.
“The law’s been in effect three years now and folks in the industry understand the permitting process,” said Patton. “But are there stragglers out there who don’t know the rules? Maybe.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tallied 300 berry-picking incidents last year — a significant increase from 2018.
Florida’s regulations will likely send more poachers expecting easy pickings north of the border into Georgia. They may be in for a rude surprise this year, though. Peach State legislators, at the end of the 2020 session in early July, approved rules similar to Florida’s to curtail illegal berry harvesting. In addition to a permit, Georgia pickers would need written permission from the landowner too. Anybody stealing more than $1,500 in berries, or lying about a landowner’s permission, would face a felony charge. The governor signed the legislation in early August.
“We had lots of illegal harvests last year on state lands. We had a lot on private lands too,” said Matt Elliott, assistant chief of wildlife conservation for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. “A lot of times you’ll have landowners lease out berry-picking rights, but somebody else will come at night and pick the berries.”
Elliott listed a slew of state lands across southeast Georgia popular with pickers and animals who depend on the berries for sustenance. Raccoons, foxes, turkeys, bears, hogs, birds and at-risk gopher tortoises eat the berries. Hunters, in particular, don’t necessarily cotton to berry pickers.
“Saw palmettos are an important part of the ecosystem that we don’t want to lose,” Elliott said. “Berry pickers are taking a public resource that belongs to all of us for their private profit.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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