New state laws that took effect two weeks ago provide for harsher penalties for illegal palmetto berry harvesting.
Okeechobee County Detective “Sport” Pickering’s family traces their roots in Florida back more than a century. His great, great grandfather was the first judge of Okeechobee County.
But as he turns his truck into a field of US 441, he talks about more recent history that has lured people from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to make day trips to his home. They come not for the fishing, but to fish for saw palmetto berries.
They are sold and used for herbal supplements. There are disputed claims that they can aid with prostate conditions.
“They’ll get anywhere from 50 cents to $3 a pound for them," said Pickering.
Two weeks ago, the saw palmetto was placed on the Agriculture Department's commercially exploited plant list. The department enacted a number of new laws to crack down on illegal harvesters.
Now, a harvester has to have written permission from a landowner, plus a permit from the Department of Agriculture. Sellers also need a permit.
Violators face first-degree misdemeanor charges, an arrestable offense.
“If they’ve got over $300 of berries now we’re into grand theft," said Det. Pickering.
As he drove around the area, he spotted a tent that just popped up, a sign that the berries will be ready for picking in the coming weeks; and many will be looking to sell them.
Back at the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, Max Ramos was asking Detective Pickering about the new laws.
“Last year, we didn’t do nothing because of the hurricane. The hurricane messed up everything," said Ramos.
He usually harvests the berries to sell when the price goes up.
“Sometimes you make a few dollars out of it … not a million," Ramos added laughing.