WEEKI WACHEE — In the thick, steamy palmetto groves that cover much of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, about 15 Hispanic men from Immokolee fanned out Friday in search of a treasured crop this time of year — saw palmetto berries.
They worked for most of the day under the blazing sun, gathering buckets filled with berries before returning to their truck around sundown.
All but one of the men made it back.
According to a Hernando County Sheriff's Office report, members of the crew notified authorities of the missing man around 7 p.m. Saturday. For the next several hours, sheriff's deputies and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission combed the area using all-terrain vehicles and a helicopter. They found the man's body in the woods about 10 p.m., a half-mile down a dirt road west of U.S. 19 and north of Centralia.
Little is known about the victim, whose identity has not been released.
Although authorities have ruled out foul play, an exact cause of death hasn't been established. Hernando County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Donna Black said her department has been in contact with the Coalition Of Immokolee Workers in Collier County in the hope that someone knew him.
Coalition of Immokalee Workers co-director Lucas Benitez said it's not rare this time of year to find farmworkers scouring public and private land in search of saw palmetto berries, which are used to make herbal supplements or medicines to relieve prostate swelling.
Buyers pay upward of $1.20 per pound for the berries. That's good money for a farm laborer during the off-season.
But working in a forbidding environment, where the heat index in a palmetto grove in summer can reach 115 degrees, is anything but easy, Benitez said.
The saw-toothed stalks of the plants are so sharp that heavy gloves are needed to handle them. In addition, the leafy green fronds hide wasp and hornet nests and are prime nesting spots for rattlesnakes. One wrong move can bring instant trouble.
"It is very hard, physical work that's very dangerous," Benitez said. "Every year there are at least one or two people who die while picking the berries. But they don't have any other choice. They are desperate."
Despite notions to the contrary, Benitez said, the vast majority of the Hispanic workers who pick the berries are not undocumented immigrants. Most are domestic farm laborers who follow the seasons to harvest crops. It's not unusual for berry pickers to travel hundreds of miles during peak harvesting time.
FWC spokesman Gary Morse said that the men harvesting berries in Hernando County this past weekend in Chassahowitzka management area were doing so illegally.
Although the state Department of Environmental Protection does issue some permits to allow berry picking on the land under its control, Morse said the FWC doesn't. "Anyone we find doing it in a management area can be cited for trespassing," Morse said. "It's become a chronic problem in recent years."
Because palmetto berries fuel a multimillion-dollar herbal medicine industry, the demand for them isn't likely to go away. Neither are the people who pick them, Benitez said.
"These are people who are trying to feed their families," he said.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]