August 17, 2008
Homeowners against palmetto berry pickers in Lehigh Acres
residents, it's trespassing; to pickers, it's survival
By JANINE ZEITLIN
short distance from concrete-block homes painted varying degrees of
beige, the lush underbrush quivers. It's a weekday morning, around
9, and most family cars have departed driveways along Woodcrest
Drive in Lehigh Acres.
plunk-plunk sound reverberates behind verdant shrubs.
tall rubber boot emerges.
a leg, covered in worn khaki.
palmetto berry picker soon joins a bucket and a thermos near the
a hard job," said Frankel Clemont, a 62-year-old Immokalee resident
whose berry-stained shirt looked as if it had been doused with
cherry Kool-Aid. "You get tired with the sun and being in the bush."
hunt for saw palmetto berries harkens to Native Americans. The wild
berries, native to the southeastern United States, flourish in
Southwest Florida's steamy climate. The berries are mostly shipped
to European buyers, who sell the botanical to treat enlarged
prostate glands, bladder and urinary infections, or to boost libido.
seemingly innocuous thumbnail-sized fruit has pitted property owners
against pickers for decades. Law enforcers frequently field angry
complaints about pickers spied around Southwest Florida when harvest
starts in late July or early August.
Residents stand up
year, for Lehigh residents such as Randy Whidden, the stakes are
Maybe it’s the stagnant economy or the clutch of foreclosed or
vacant homes surrounding his wooded Richmond Avenue North property —
but he wants action.
“This isn’t just like one group of people,” said Whidden, an
electrical contractor who is 37 and has teamed with frustrated
neighbors to document and track the pickers in Lehigh. “This is big
“It’s getting on my nerves.”
Clemont understands that perspective.
“It’s his,” he said. “It’s not ridiculous. That’s why you try to
Whidden does not want peace with the pickers. He wants them gone.
In late July, Whidden, an Iraq war veteran, says he heard a clamor
that sounded like sheet metal at the vacant place abutting his three
acres. He described seeing three people who looked like pickers
peeling off a metal gate. The next morning, he saw pickers on his
open lot. A few days later, he saw 10 pickers across the street.
Each time, he called the authorities. He hasn’t been satisfied with
There’s not much we can do. Lee deputies have done little more than
tell them to leave, he says.
“You don’t know, are these guys here picking berries, or are they
going to steal something?” he asked. “They’re not your neighbors,
not people you know. They’re strangers that come here to do work.”
Whidden connected with Lee Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Charles Ferrante,
who is sympathetic.
“The problem is that this has been going on forever and ever, and
finally Mr. Whidden is the first person to stand up to it,” Ferrante
said. “I’ve got to give him credit for his convictions.”
Ferrante said it’s hard to slap pickers with a trespassing charge if
an owner is not home, is absentee or the property, like many in
Lehigh, is in foreclosure. He has referred the matter to the
sheriff’s legal team to see whether the county can craft a law to
squelch picking for infringing on quality of life or to peg a value
to the berries and charge pickers with theft.
“I’m not accusing the berry pickers of doing anything but picking
berries, but what would you do if you woke up in the morning and saw
someone in the backyard with a machete?” Ferrante asked.
Raising liability issues
enforcers connected Don Armstrong, a father to 3-year-old twins who
lives on Congress Avenue, with Whidden. The plumber, in his late
30s, has called the sheriff’s office three times this year. He
doesn’t like leaving his wife and children home alone when he sees
strangers wandering in the woods.
“It’s not what race or religion they are — I don’t care,” he said.
“It really irks me that I can’t get anything done.”
Both men are concerned about liability if a picker should fall, be
bitten by a rattlesnake or drown on land that may not be covered by
Greg Schell, a lawyer with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project,
said it’s a legitimate worry, though a hard case to prove.
“In our litigious society, anything’s possible,” he said. “If
somebody thinks there’s money, lawyers will take the case.”
pick to survive
lugs a white, plastic industrial bucket in a vacant lot a few blocks
from Whidden’s home. Pickups whoosh by on East 17th Street.
“Whew,” he said, swabbing his forehead, exiting the woods. Dried
sweat collects in the creases of his neck. The nametag on the blue
work shirt says Hank but this man is Guatemalan, Roman Perez, 34.
Like Whidden, he has experienced bigger battles than berries. In
1994, he left his home near the border of Mexico after violence
erupted in neighboring Chiapas.
Perez picks berries — bolitas in Spanish — to cover bills during
workless weeks until vegetable harvest season starts in the fall.
Berry prices were hovering around 12 cents per pound this week, or
$20 to $50 a day, for the labor that entails encounters with
critters and snakes while trudging through the wild, serrated palms.
This year’s prices pale to the $3 per pound it has peaked at in the
past decade. Typically, prices range between 25 and 85 cents a
pound, experts say.
Trying to find a compromise with property owners is the most
difficult part of his job.
Perez looks for spots that aren’t fenced or posted with “No
Workers and migrant advocates say law enforcers have arrested
pickers in the past. If he’s ordered off, Perez said he apologizes
and moves to the next block.
“I realize that it’s not my property,” he said. “It’s their property
but the berry grows on its own. It’s not like tomatoes. They don’t
use labor or fertilizers to cultivate it. God feeds it. It rains and
the plant grows.”
He puts his own survival before other’s property rights. If he
doesn’t pick it, he says the lime-colored berry will ripen and rot
“If I didn’t need to be here, I wouldn’t be here,” Perez said.
“People may see me and think, ‘What is he doing? Is he stealing
something?’ I don’t know what other people do, but I only do what’s
Selling their wares
a day’s work, many pickers head to New Market Road in Immokalee to
sell the berries to buyers, who, in turn, peddle them to often
larger companies. There, vans and trucks loaded with Haitian,
Mexican and Guatemalan men, women and some children swing into
Sanchez Produce Market. The parking lot looks like a fast-food
Juan Sanchez, the owner, has been working in berries, a cottage
industry the state doesn’t track, for 25 years. He began as a
picker. He believes that anyone caught stealing anything but berries
should be punished but believes the vast majority of workers are not
“The truth is, if there was no work in bolitas, there would be a lot
more crime,” he said. “It’s in the hands of the government because,
in reality, we can’t say anything. The people who have their own
story, who have had to fight to survive, or experienced poverty, we
Balance is delicate
balance between pickers’ survival and homeowners’ rights does not
seem likely in Lee.
Some berry-shipping companies, of which there are a few in Southwest
Florida, lease land for pickers, agriculture experts say. But
there’s a point at which it becomes cost-prohibitive to regulate the
saw palmetto berry industry, said Fritz Roka, an associate professor
at the University of Florida’s field station in Immokalee.
He said buyers could be monitored and required to provide proof they
were allowed to harvest the berries to sellers but “the value of the
crop probably is that it wouldn’t warrant spending money on that.”
Whidden believes the berry-buying and shipping companies and labor
bosses should take more responsibility. And another question arises:
Is sinking tax dollars into widespread patrols to nab pickers worth
“We’re not talking about illegal drugs here. We’re talking about a
little berry,” Roka said. Lee County commissioner Frank Mann, whose
district includes Lehigh Acres, said he’s open to suggestions for
proposed laws. But if folks see people who look like berry pickers
stealing, they should report it as theft.
“A berry-picking ordinance? I just don’t know that’s going to be the
answer here,” Mann said. “The quickest solution is alert and
Clemont’s answer is steeped in divine intervention.
“One day, you won’t need to work hard like this,” Clemont said,
squinting into the brutal morning light. “It’s going to be a better
life. You won’t have sun like that. No bills to pay and no place
you’ll have to look for food. God will fix it ... That time is
Then, he turned from the road, traipsed into the nest of saw
palmetto palms and was gone.
Soon after came the plunk, plunk.