When black bears in Florida began foraging for food in people’s backyards, the state responded by banning the harvest of small orange, green and dark-blue saw palmetto berries the bears feed on in the wild.
The reasoning? Preserving more of the bears’ food in their habitats would make them less likely to encroach on suburbia.
But there was one thing officials overlooked, advocates for migrant farmworkers say: The ban has left some 3,000 farmworkers who rely on harvesting the wild berries between citrus seasons unable to feed their families legally.
Florida’s estimated 300,000 farmworkers, including seasonal and migrant workers, play a central role in the state’s agriculture industry. The industry has an annual impact of more than $120 billion on Florida’s economy, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Most of the state’s farmworkers are Latino.
“It was not fair to the farmworkers because they had no say, they had no warning, they had no alternative,” said Karen Woodall, executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, which strives to improve the lives of low-income workers and families. “The farmworkers have relied on picking these berries year after year.”
One issue, Woodall said, is that development is encroaching on bears’ natural habitat — not a shortage of palmetto berries.
For more than three years, the state has been issuing $10 daily permits that allow farmworkers to harvest as many palmetto berries as they can between July 31 and Nov. 1.
But in June, the state decided not to issue the permits this year as part of a “bear-management plan,” leaving migrant workers facing a tough decision: Go without income they need to get by for themselves and their families or risk arrest for violating the ban on picking the berries on state land.
Among workers and residents, there is confusion, too, about property lines and whether berries are on public or private property. Even if berries are on private property, the landowner needs to give permission for picking to occur.
Palmetto trees are palms that grow to a maximum height of 10 feet in sandy coastal areas or pine woods in Florida and the Bahamas and coastal lands from the Carolinas to Texas. With their growing popularity as an herbal supplement used for prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction in the United States and Europe, palmetto berries have become a hot commodity. The new ban on picking them has only served to push the price higher.
Workers typically start in southwest Florida and move north to follow the ripening of the berries in the state.
Several migrant workers, some of them undocumented, say economic necessity has forced them to risk arrest.
Rafael, a 48-year-old undocumented immigrant from Chiapas, Mexico, lives in Immokalee in southwest Florida. He has been picking the berries for five years. This year, he said, he and fellow palmetto harvesters have been venturing onto private property to pick undetected.
“We wait by the edge of the forest and if we see no police, we go in to pick the berries,” Rafael said in Spanish through a translator. “With permission or without permission, we do what we have to do. If we have to jump a fence, we jump a fence. But we have to work, no matter what.”
Rafael made it through the recent palmetto berry season without getting arrested. Others were less fortunate.
Berry Picking Leads to Charges
In early September, the whirring of the county sheriff’s office helicopter overhead terrified a group of Guatemalan workers who were harvesting the berries in Polk County, Florida. The workers were arrested, booked and jailed, and have since been released on bond, said assistant public defender Darlene Williams, who is representing them.
Williams said a man brought her clients in a van to pick the palmetto berries, and that they had no idea doing so was illegal. Farmworkers have been harvesting the berries in rural Polk County for decades, braving scorching heat, high humidity and the threat of black bears, panthers, snakes and alligators.
The nine workers arrested Sept. 3 in the rural outpost of Frostproof were indigenous Guatemalan immigrants who do not speak English or Spanish and have no familiarity with the U.S. justice system, Williams said.
“It would be like one of us being dropped onto Mars and being told, ‘There you go. Take care,’” she said.
State officials had posted and distributed flyers this year about discontinuing the permitting but they were in English, Spanish and Creole, not the rare Q’anjob’al language the indigenous Guatemalans speak.
The nine workers arrested in Frostproof, and five others arrested in the Polk County town of Lake Wales in August, have been charged with felony grand theft, considered a “crime of moral turpitude,” which could lead to deportation even though these immigrants apparently were in this country legally. They have work visas but that is not enough to protect them from being deported.
“These people are trying to put food on their table, and they’re the same people who make sure we have fresh fruits and vegetables on our table,” Williams said.
The berries now go for $1.65 a pound when bought by wholesalers, she said, and sheriff’s deputies added the value of all the pickers’ berries to come up with the grand theft charge, which requires theft of property worth more than $300.
A spokeswoman for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, asked to comment on the arrests, emailed affidavits that said the properties were fenced. But the fences were damaged and covered by palmetto berries, according to the documents.
The berries in Frostproof were growing on an undeveloped lot owned by an Orlando developer, and the berries in Lake Wales were growing on lots in a subdivision. Thus, the berries would have fallen to the ground and rotted had they not been picked, said Robert Young, general counsel for the 10th Judicial Circuit public defender.
Why Were Farmworkers Left Out?
Woodall and Tirso Moreno, general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, complain that the state excluded farmworkers from the decision not to issue permits, and say the workers were not even aware the decision had been made.
In a July 20 letter to state Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat whose district includes Immokalee, Florida Forest Service (FFS) Director Jim Karels wrote that with increased reports of “human/bear conflicts” in Florida in recent years, the Forest Service told staff on June 17 to discontinue issuing special use permits for harvesting palmetto berries “until further notice.”
FFS is a part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Aaron Keller, press secretary for the office of Department Commissioner Adam H. Putnam, declined to comment on the decision.
Bullard said he has spoken to both Woodall and Putnam. “I think it will result in at least an abbreviated permitting process looking at next season,” the senator said.
Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said in an email: “The FWC works to maintain a healthy bear population, and natural food sources such as palmetto berries are needed to do this.”
Woodall notes that farmworkers were also excluded from discussions about the state’s overall bear-management plan, which included hunters and environmentalists but no farmworkers. She said state officials had agreed to include the farmworkers in the discussions from now on.
Bullard said the farmworkers suffer consequences for berry picking, including being arrested, while the contractors who arrange for their transportation, work and distribution of berries to producers go unpunished.
“Rather than hold the labor organizer accountable, the picker is being held accountable, and that I think is an unjust process when someone is making a good-faith effort to go pick these berries and finding out that they’re not supposed to after the fact,” Bullard said.
Cristobal Calzada, a 62-year-old immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, said he makes an average of about $140 a day for picking the palmetto berries for up to 12 hours.
Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, Calzada said he supports his wife with the berry-picking income. (He also has two grown children.)
With no permits this year, he said, “I feel cheated. It’s a good crop. It’s a cash crop, and you have money during the off-season” from citrus picking.
Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which advocates for farm workers from Florida to New Jersey, called it unfair to deny the workers permits when they are so dependent on the berries, have grown accustomed to picking them and, in many cases, heard nothing of the ban.
“Basically, it leaves them with a label of being criminals when for so many years they had permission to be doing this work,” Benitez said.
“It’s unfair to tell them they can’t harvest on state property. It’s unjust because basically it’s like giving wings to an eagle and then suddenly taking them away and watching the eagle just crash to the ground.”
Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, CBS News, The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
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