August 17, 2008


Homeowners against palmetto berry pickers in Lehigh Acres

To residents, it's trespassing; to pickers, it's survival



A 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.

A plunk-plunk sound reverberates behind verdant shrubs.

A tall rubber boot emerges.

Then a leg, covered in worn khaki.

A saw palmetto berry picker soon joins a bucket and a thermos near the road.

"It's 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."

The 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.

This 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

This year, for Lehigh residents such as Randy Whidden, the stakes are unique.

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 business.

“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 create peace.”

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 their response:

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

Law 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 homeowner’s insurance.

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.”

They pick to survive

A man 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 Trespassing” signs.

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 black.

“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 right.”


Selling their wares

After 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 drive-through.

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 thieves.

“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 understand.”


Balance is delicate

A 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 it?

“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 vigilant neighbors.”

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 coming.”

Then, he turned from the road, traipsed into the nest of saw palmetto palms and was gone.

Soon after came the plunk, plunk.