A year ago, the price of Southwest Florida saw-palmetto berries jumped from its usual dime-a-pound level to $2.34, due to a poor crop.
Until then, saw-palmetto had been a summer tale of unemployed farm workers fighting heat exhaustion, rattlesnakes and, at times, law enforcement officers, to collect berries that might bring them 15 cents per pound.
Now, some, Florida ranchers and farmers are wondering whether this plants they used to treat as cattle feed at best and as a weed at worst, could be turned into a profit.
Up to now, it has been left to a handful of companies to meet the world's needs for saw-palmetto berries, used to make medicine and/or food supplements.
The product is not subject to state inspection because it is not regulated for size nor quality, said Joe Whigham, certification specialist for the Division of Fruit & Vegetable at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Since the berries come to maturity around mid-August, a time when little work is being done in South Florida fields, unemployed farm workers and other pickers have been collecting the wild fruit on public and private properties.
Not only have they exposed themselves to numerous dangers—from saw-palmetto spikes and stickers that tear skin and clothes, to poisonous snakes—but at times, they have been arrested for trespassing.
Now, after last year's price hike, the question for farmers and ranchers is, can saw-palmetto berries be really profitable?
Many things will have to happen in order to turn it into a viable industry, said Naples resident Greg Zaino, who recently launched Saw Palmetto Berries Co-Op of Florida Inc.
Producers will need to guarantee buyers a quality product and timely delivery, which cannot be accomplished by getting berries picked all over the countryside, he said.
Berries will have to be collected in quantities that would insure a reasonable price per pound—excessive quantities, such as this year, would drive prices below production costs, Zaino said.
Can this be done when dealing with a wild product? Yes, he said, and that's why he recently started his saw-palmetto co-op.
Originally from Boston, Zaino has spent most of his career in wholesale produce—marketing, buying and selling products in Boston, Cape Cod and Naples, he said.
Twenty years ago, the cranberry market in Cape Cod was similar to today's saw-palmetto berries, said Zaino.
As in the case of saw-palmetto, cranberries would mature once a year and would be harvested during a one-month period, he said. "They used to sell for about $8 to $12 a box."
Then, growers created a co-op, and now, cranberries usually sell for $30 to $40 per box, he said.
By pooling their resources, Florida growers could develop a marketable commodity out of this unruly crop, Zaino said.
Farm workers would also benefit—they would get good working conditions, with health-insurance coverage and the same if not higher pay for their labor, he said.
The co-op would keep track of the demand, oversee the picking and handle processing and shipping for farmers and ranchers, said Zaino.
Since Felda-based Plantation Medicinals Inc.—Florida's biggest operation, processing about 10-million pounds a year—currently supplies Europe through its berry producers, Zaino would target the U.S. market, which is expanding each year, he said.
"Statistics say that the demand for the berries is about 20 million pounds per year, with the potential of growing 10 percent annually," he said.
With this in mind, Zaino recently contracted with three agribusinesses in the Immokalee area this year—Alico Farms, Pacific Land Co. and Barron Collier Partnership.
This amounts to approximately 175,000 acres, which Luna Harvesting Co. of Labelle has been retained to harvest, he said.
In addition, Zaino has built an 8,000-square-foot facility in Immokalee to process and ship the berries that usually are sold in capsules. "We sell them whole dried, in powder form and, by special order, in liquid extract," he said.
Buyers have to be secured prior to picking and processing because, unlike other produce, there is no open market for saw-palmetto berries, Zaino said. "It's a specialty market,' he said.
Saw-palmetto is sought after for its medicinal properties, said Marlin Huffman—chairman of Plantation Botanicals Inc., the parent company of Plantation Medicinals.
"Florida Indians called it a fountain of youth," said Huffman.
They ate the berries whose flavor requires an acquired taste, he said.
"The old men figured out in a hurry that they did not have to get up during the night (when they ate it).
"It reduced benign swelling of the prostate, cleaned the urinal tract and did marvels for their libido - it's not an aphrodisiac, but it helped their libido," Huffman said.
This knowledge was passed on to the Spaniards; the first shipment of saw-palmetto berries was shipped to Spain via St. Augustine in the 1600s, he said.
The demand remained small until the 1960s, when it started to expand in Europe; and by 1994, the market exceeded 13-million pounds of fresh berries, Huffman said.
The U.S. market for saw-palmetto berries is limited to vitamin and health-food stores, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not authorized its medicinal use, said Jeff Mullahey, range scientist for the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) in Immokalee.
"In the European literature, there are several papers in (scientific) journals that talk about benefits of saw-palmetto --they are proven benefits," he said.
"The use of plant-based remedies is widespread in Europe, especially in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and England," said Philippe Moser, a Naples-based French pharmacist and researcher who has developed a line of plant-based medicines currently sold in Europe.
"In terms of toxicity, side effects of a number of (approved) drugs, which are in fact synthetic, are unknown. But since plants have been in use for hundreds of years, their side effects have been identified and we have managed to control them," he said.
But the FDA does not recognize the historical usage of herbs and plants, said Huffman, in an interview for the book, Herbs for Sale.
Unless millions of dollars are spent on a study, the FDA will not consider a product—and no company will invest in a wild berry, for which they could not get a patent, he said.
However, as in the case of other food supplements that are not endorsed by the FDA the U.S. market for saw-palmetto to is growing, said Zaino.
What makes saw-palmetto the more appealing as a commodity is the fact that it rarely grows outside Florida, Zaino said.
Even though small patches of saw-palmetto can be found from South Carolina, to southern Mississippi, it is truly Florida's own, growing in every county in one saw-palmetto species or another, said Mullahey.
Also called Serenoa repens, saw-palmetto has been growing wild in Florida since well before Christopher Columbus ever dreamed of sailing the Atlantic—some plants in the state could be as old as 700 years, he said. Their stems can reach 15 to 20 feet in height and their leaves up to three feet in width, he said.
Thriving in hot weather, the plant is at its best and its most productive, berry-wise, in South Florida, but does not grow in Texas, Mexico nor in the Caribbean, said Huffman.
South Florida's saw-palmetto tends to be of the tall variety and is the only one in the state that produces fruit more or less each year, he said.
Since Europeans started to farm and ranch in the state, their only concern has been finding ways- to destroy this plant, which is drought resistant, insect resistant, fire resistant and requires no fertilizer, Mullahey said.
Zaino said he believes that if farmers and ranchers work together, this co-op could transform saw-palmetto berries into a commodity as lucrative as cranberries—he intends to spend the next few months travelling throughout Florida to meet growers, he said.
In the case of ranchers, an additional income would make a huge difference, said Mullahey. "Beef cattle prices are very, very low—last year they got just over $3 per pound.
"If the berries were 50 cents a pound, with several hundreds pounds per acre on their land, they would make more with saw-palmetto than with cattle," he said.
In the meantime, Mullahey has begun a three-year study into saw-palmetto. "There is nothing really known on this plant—we intend to discover what makes it tick," he said.
He will look into factors that affect the plant's growth and its fruit production, and determine whether commercial picking would disrupt wildlife—black bears feed on the berries and Florida panthers seek the plant's cover as rest sites and natal dens, said Mullahey.
Until the industry has developed, it would be premature for farmers to set about growing saw-palmetto berries, said Tim Hewitt, economist for IFAS in Marianna.
Hewitt plans to keep an eye on saw-palmetto to analyze its economic potential, he said.
But at this point, it's too early to assess its profitability, he said.
Everett Loukonen, agribusiness manager for Barron Collier Partnership, which has joined Zaino's co-op, agreed.
"Up to now, there hasn't been an established marketing program."
It will be interesting to see what happens with Zaino's co-op in the next few years, he said.
This month, Zaino has purchased berries from street pickers, he said.
"They had all these berries to sell and they were starving."
But soon, this will become impossible, he said. "We plan to be organically certified next year—you need to have the land identified (in order to do so)," said Zaino.
If all goes according to plans, the pickers will be lawfully employed for saw-palmetto berry harvesting, and growers will get their share of the market within years, he said.
Source: Naples Daily News, Sunday, August 25, 1996.
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