Sunshine State berry bandits targeted over border crossing poaching

By: - March 31, 2020 7:42 am

Georgia lawmakers parted company March 16 as the coronavirus quietly circulated among them, but not before legislation advanced to punish palmetto berry poachers. Photo credit: James H. Miller & Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society,

Some little berries mean big money for south Georgians, and a Senate bill aims to keep that money in the hands of the people who own the soil where they grow.

Ocilla Republican Sen. Tyler Harper said berry bandits from Florida are crossing state lines to steal Georgia’s saw palmetto berries after the Sunshine State passed a law against palmetto pilfering. Harper’s bill aiming to stop those thieves is similar to Florida’s and passed the Senate 51-3 earlier this month. It is set to go to the House once the session resumes, although lawmakers might be too preoccupied with a public health crisis and state finances laid low by coronavirus to worry much about palmetto berry rustlers now.

Still, it was one of the bills important enough to make it from one chamber to another this year to keep it in contention to make it to the governor’s desk to sign.

The House has already passed a similar version over objections from some who say the measure goes too far. Under the proposal, those caught stealing more than $1,500 in berries or those who lie about having a landowner’s permission to pick could face a felony charge.

The saw palmetto is a palm tree that grows in Florida, south Georgia and west along the gulf coast. Some believe its berries can help men with prostate issues, though the science on that isn’t exactly clear. According to the Mayo Clinic, one study found saw palmetto extract was effective in relieving symptoms of prostate enlargement, but a subsequent study found it no better than a placebo.

Listings on Amazon also claim it is a virtual wonder drug that can prevent hair loss, reduce acne and increase libido, statements that have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Joe Hopkins owns Toledo Manufacturing, a timber company in Folkston near the Florida line. He said he’s spent years trying to rid his property of saw palmettos with herbicide because they are extremely flammable.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “We spent 20 years trying to kill them, and now they’re going to be worth something. There’s no shortage for sure, but it is kind of funny, all that time people thought it was a worthless plant.”

Hopkins said the berries spiked in popularity a few years ago. He was contacted by a processor based in Waycross, who harvests the berries on his land and gives him a cut of the proceeds.

But, he said, with the arrival of harvest season in September comes a rush of uninvited strangers on his property.

“People would be three miles off the paved road, in the woods, behind a locked gate,” he said. “Nothing mattered, they would just be collecting them anywhere. … I’ve never seen people just come on your land and steal like that.”

Hopkins said one man had set up in the north part of town with a scale, buying berries for a dollar a pound and reselling them to processors for $2.10 per pound. By the time law enforcement officers came to check it out, the berry dealers had moved over 300,000 pounds of the stuff.

More than the money, Hopkins said he is concerned about the safety of his land and the people on it.

Buyers like Jonathan Reed of Brantley County take the berries by the ton to processors to be dried and shipped.

Reed said people attracted by the potential to make big money during the harvest season do not always pick by the rules.

“What they do is they sleep in the woods and they move up through Florida into Georgia and they steal berries,” he said. “They have a truck that goes around and takes them back to Immokalee … Unfortunately, when you try to round them up, they’re in the middle of the woods, so (they) just scatter.”

Reed said he keeps an eye out for vehicles or people described by landowners as involved with berry stealing. If he catches one, he’ll confiscate their haul and pay restitution to the rightful owner, but he said he can’t catch every wrongful berry owner.

He said he fully supports Harper’s bill even though he gets paid the same no matter who gives him the berries.

“It will be a very good thing for us,” he said. “I get 10 to 15 calls a day about people stealing palmetto berries and what can we do about it. We’ve been saying we really need to pass some kind of legislation like they have in Florida so we can get some kind of control over it.”

Georgia Forestry Association President and CEO Andres Villegas said it’s difficult to put an exact number on the economic impact these berries have on rural south Georgia. In part, that’s because they’ve only really gained popularity in the past five or so years.

In 2018, Florida lawmakers passed a law requiring saw palmetto harvesters to obtain a permit after landowners complained of berry rustlers. In one four-day stretch in 2019, southwest Florida officials arrested 14 people in connection with palmetto pilfering.

Harper said Florida’s law has meant berry hunters have been crossing the border seeking the forbidden fruit. His legislation is based on the Sunshine State’s bill.

“Florida has passed a law, and the thieves know that Georgia doesn’t have a law. And they come to Georgia more intently because of that, and they steal our berries down in south Georgia, and it’s just become a significant issue, especially in the forestry community,” he said.

Under Harper’s bill, harvesting and selling palmetto berries would require a permit.

Villegas of the forestry association said if the bill becomes law, it will be harder for would-be thieves to make any money off ill-gotten berries.

“Requiring a paper trail certificate of harvest means it will be much easier to catch someone with a truck full of berries in transit,” he said. “If they don’t have proof of their legal right to possess the berries, it’s much easier to capture folks once they’re moving those berries to market.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.