Saw palmetto berry bandits facing harsher punishments

Author: Jillian Haggerty Writer: Matias Abril
Published: Updated:

A new law is cracking down on saw palmetto berry bandits, who are known for stealing the berries and selling them by the pound.

Saw palmetto berries are a valuable resource that grows in Southwest Florida.

Now, Florida is pushing a new law that should keep the berries safe with harsher consequences for those who harvest them illegally.

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office Agriculture Unit has new laws and consequences for the palmetto berry harvesting season this year.

This means berries need to be harvested with written permission from the land owner and a written permit from the Florida Department of Agriculture. If you don’t, fines and penalties are in your future.

saw palmetto berry
Arrests made in illegal saw palmetto berry harvest in Florida. CREDIT: INDIAN RIVER COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

So the question is, what makes these berries so attractive?

It’s not your typical berry, but one with healing powers and draws a lot of thieves.

“Well, first of all, they are used for prostate cancer, to keep the prostate line from swelling, so that’s why they are harvested in the first place,” said Jeremia Mudge, a harvester at J&B Palmetto Berries in LaBelle.

And for such a short harvesting season– only two months long– thieves don’t back down from the challenge to get them, but harvesters are on the lookout.

“We have cameras; we have drones; we put about eight to 15 people in jail a year. It’s an epidemic. It’s disgusting. I’ve been cut and injured,” Mudge said.

But the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Agriculture Unit said consequences are different this year.

Via a Facebook video, they said, “Harvesting without a permit or without written permission is a third-degree felony punishable up to five years in prison; falsifying a harvesting document also is a third-degree felony.

Those who want to buy the berry need copies of a harvesting permit, landowner permission, and a two-year, government-issued ID for the harvester. Failing to do so is a “first-degree felony punishable up to one year in jail; buying and possessing unlawfully harvested palmetto berries is [a] third-degree felony punishable up to five years in prison,” CCSO said.

Harvesters just want something done to protect their businesses.

“Everything can just be bought from a commercial harvester. Stop all this off the side of the road, and you would stop, well, a lot of this,” Mudge said.

The harvester told WINK News that thieves hide out until 2-3 a.m. and have stolen around 20,000 pounds of berries that are worth a lot of money.

For more information on how to obtain a harvesting permit, go to the Florida Department of Agriculture’s website.

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