GAINESVILLE—Florida’s next cash crop could come straight out of the wilds of South Florida, where the common saw palmetto grows. Researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences say the plant’s berries some day could even rank among the state’s top agricultural commodities.
Sounds bizarre, perhaps, for a bush that ranchers and developers have been cursing for years. But Europeans are buying the berries by the ton for an herbal prostate remedy, and the U.S. market is poised for expansion.
Those interested in the saw palmetto market have a keen eye on a study just started by range scientist Jeff Mullahey and research associate Mary Carrington, based at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.
“The study will increase our knowledge concerning the production and management of the saw palmetto,” Mullahey said.
Saw palmetto research is unique in that the only previous study dates back to the 1960s. During UF’s three-year study, the researchers will examine factors that affect growth and fruiting of the saw palmetto. The saw palmetto is hardy and no natural pests for it have been identified, Carrington said, making it ideal as a low-maintenance crop.
“Many farmers in Florida already have lots of saw palmetto on their land and our research will help them learn what potential they have for a supplemental crop,” Carrington said. “Ultimately, we’re interested in increasing the fruiting and extracts so we’ll look at how shade, burning and fertilizer affect the fruit.”
The foreign market for palmetto berries already is booming, as Europeans gobble up the berry extract as a natural remedy for prostate problems. Herbal medicine experts say the U.S. market is on the brink of a similar boom.
“Consumer interest in natural medicines is at an all-time high and growing quickly,” said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council and publisher of HerbalGram, a peer-reviewed journal about herbal medicine.
“Natural medicines are the fastest growing segment in supermarkets. Consumers want what natural remedies offer: safety, low-cost, and effectiveness,” Blumenthal said. “Natural prostate remedies cost about 86 cents a day, whereas pharmaceutical drugs — with their side effects — cost $2 to $2.50 per day.
“With benign prostatic hyperblasia affecting half of all men 50 to 60 years old, there’s a potential for market expansion, with the baby boomers turning 50 this year,” Blumenthal said. “The economic implications for Florida are very positive.”
Florida’s major exporter of palmetto berries and extracts is Plantation Medicinals, outside Immokalee in Felda. Owner Marlin Huffman says he is strongly interested in research on the berry.
So little is known about the previously ignored saw palmetto that Huffman said he would like to learn things as basic as how growing temperature affects berry production. He also wants to know which berries — green, yellow or ripe black berries — contain the most oil, fatty acids and extractable solids. If they were processed fresh, could more oil be produced?
Huffman already knows that something happens as the berries ripen and turn black. In the black berries, the extractable solids increase to 21 percent.
“If there’s an advantage to any method or technique, I want to know about it now, not 10 years from now,” Huffman said. “Most of the industry hasn’t thought of this stuff. They say a palmetto berry is a palmetto berry. But we’re becoming more sophisticated and our buyers are thinking of these things.”
Huffman and Al Curry, one of his foremen, say the market, mostly foreign, has expanded by 5 to 10 percent a year for the last eight years.
And while no one knows how much palmetto acreage there is or how much is being harvested, top per-acre yields might be enough to turn the heads of growers and ranchers. Instead of trying to eradicate it, they may find themselves hiring crews to harvest saw palmetto fruit.
Mullahey said palmetto berries are attractive as an economic supplement for cattle ranchers, to provide additional income when cattle prices are low. But at top yields, the berry could become a crop in its own right.
Curry estimates a typical yield at 1,000 pounds per acre but yields can be highly variable. UF/IFAS agricultural economist Fritz Roka says with a 1,000-pound yield and a market price of 25 cents a pound, a landowner stands to gain as much as 10 cents per pound, or $100 per acre.
“Beats the heck out of cow prices,” says Plantation Medicinals’ Curry. Adds Mullahey: “Even when cow prices are good.”
“It’s a big surprise, here’s a plant no one gave a second thought to and now you can make money on it,” Mullahey said.
Huffman — who started out gathering wild herbs 30 years ago with his wife, Eva, and now employs 2,000 people on four ranches — knows the value of learning more about plants that provide natural remedies.
“As the wild bush becomes a semi-cultivated bush,” Huffman said, “research and development by UF will be extremely important to the saw palmetto industry.”
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