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Tribal members’ hard work reaps benefits during saw palmetto berry season

Gil Yzaguirre strips berries off a low to the ground palmetto bush Aug. 16 in BIg Cypress. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

BIG CYPRESS — The harvest season for saw palmetto berries, or bolitas, is underway and tribal members in Big Cypress and Immokalee lined up for permits to harvest them Aug. 16.

The permits, valid from Aug. 16-22, were granted on a first come, first served basis for just 15 sites in Big Cypress and two in Immokalee. Palmetto berries were put on the state’s list of commercially exploited plants in 2018 and permits have been required ever since.

Under the hot summer sun at Big Cypress’s old bingo hall site, Environmental Resource Management Department forester Grant Steelman was prepared with permits, a printer and maps of the harvesting sites. He started distributing them at 8:30 a.m.; within 90 minutes all the permits were gone.

The sites, or units, were mapped out using trail lines. Formerly a wildland fire management officer, Steelman is familiar with the land and its trails. He knows where the palmetto bushes are located on each site.

“A small area could have a lot [of berries]; a big area could have nothing,” Steelman said.

Berries grow in clusters and these were about to be harvested from a palmetto bush on the Big Cypress Reservation. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

The berries, which sell for just under $2 per pound, can be lucrative since pickers can harvest thousands of pounds in just one morning’s work. The riper the berries, the more they weigh.

Maverick Osceola scoped out some sites before he chose one. He started harvesting berries three years ago with his mother and is carrying on her legacy.

“It’s a good way to make some money,” Osceola said. “It’s a good side job. The challenges are snakes, animals and stuff.”

This was Sam Caldwell’s first year picking the berries.

“I don’t know too much about it, but I’ll find out today,” he said.

Florida black bears eat a lot of the berries since 80% of their diet consists of plants, nuts and berries. Gary Frank, who collects palmetto fiber for dolls from the plants, wants to see if harvesting the berries will have an impact on wildlife and the growth of more palmetto plants.

“We want the fiber to last and the bears to have a good food source,” Frank said. “Why not let the berries drop so we get more sprouts? It’s the process of nature; how do things flourish if you’re taking the seeds?”

From left, Maverick Osceola, Sam Caldwell and Gary Frank look on as Grant Steelman points out the locations on Big Cypress available to pick palmetto berries. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

With this harvest, Steelman will begin a research project on the possible production of saw palmetto berries. The research may be able to answer some of Frank’s questions, but Steelman won’t know until they have more information.

“Palmettos are highly variable,” Steelman said. “What can look good in March can be a bust in August. We are trying to figure out the basic ecology and how it relates to plants and animals.”

The research will consider rainfall, moon phases, fires, droughts and floods. The research could take years.

“To get a pattern, you almost need to be generational,” Steelman said. “Like most research, one answer leads to multiple questions. Tribal member insights can help tremendously since their insights are generational.”

Those who have lived on the reservations for decades can relay what they saw in the past as compared to what is happening today. Steelman said that knowledge can be helpful to the research, in an ad hoc and informal way.

From left, Chris Briscall helps to haul a bag of berries onto his pickup truck as picking partner Reno De Leon and a worker help. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

The weight of the harvest at each site will comprise the data collected for the research. Poundage from each site will be logged.

Some berry processors in the state are row planting the bushes. Steelman said anything that makes money is usually researched.

Palmetto berries are dried and used in the production of dietary supplements such as saw palmetto or used in livestock feed, cosmetics or shampoos worldwide. The international market is estimated to be more than $130 million per year, according to a manufacturer in the state. Europe is the largest market for the berries.

Tribal members who have harvested the berries in the past have some interesting stories. The work is hot, hard and a bit dangerous. Snakes are sometimes found and insects, such as wasps, are plentiful in the brush where the plants thrive.

In 2017, Ignacia Garza was eight months pregnant and went out to harvest berries with her husband. The land was very wet and their vehicle got stuck in mud. It took several hours for someone to arrive and free the vehicle, but everything worked out well.

“It was worth it. We got a lot of berries,” Garza said. “A couple of days later I had the baby. The day I went into labor, my husband was out picking again. There was no cell service, so someone went and got him out.”

This season was Krystal Rodriguez’s third year picking, but the first for her sister Amy Garza.

“I have a daughter in her senior year of college in Missouri and another is a senior in high school.” Garza said when asked why she was picking berries.

Picking the berries may be lucrative, but it is back-breaking work. The plants grow in a haphazard fashion among thorny vines, bushes and pine trees. It can be treacherous to reach the plants, which may or may not have berries.

ERMD forester Grant Steelman calculates the amount of berries harvested by Chris Briscall in Big Cypress. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Gil Yzaguirre, who has been picking berries for about 20 years on and off, didn’t seem to mind the trek. He was well equipped with sturdy waterproof boots and a bright, long-sleeved shirt to keep away stinging insects.

“There is a lot of competition now, a lot of people are picking,” said Yzaguirre, who also builds chickees. “Some years you could get $5 or $6 a pound.”

Bags for the berries come in various sizes, which can hold from 100 to 300 pounds each. A buyer met the pickers at the bingo hall site in the afternoon to weigh the berries and make offers to purchase them. Other buyers work in Immokalee, so tribal members could choose to sell on the reservation or travel with their haul to Immokalee.

The price between staying put and traveling to Immokalee was negligible, about a couple of cents per pound difference. But with thousands of pounds of berries, every cent counts.

Chris Briscall and his picking partner Reno DeLeon were the first ones in from picking. In just a few hours they had 2,139 pounds of berries. They had a friend in Immokalee who wanted to purchase them, so after they weighed in they hit the road.

Palmetto berry picking in Brighton was held from Aug. 23-29.

The palmetto berry season is a short one; by mid-September they will all be harvested. The harvest in Big Cypress went smoothly. As of Aug. 18th, 15,123 pounds were picked, giving Steelman the first bit of data to study.

Gil Yzaguirre holds a handful of palmetto berries, or bolitas, as he picks the berries in Big Cypress. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at