When you think of Fort Stewart’s training area, two things probably come to mind immediately: training noise and prescribed burns.
Recorded breaking harvests probably don’t come to mind. This year, though, the installation’s Directorate of Public Works Forestry Branch collected and sold a bumper crops of palmetto berries.
That’s right; palmetto berries.
“We’ve had a really good year this year,” said Russ Carter, Fort Stewart’s general forest manager. “We’ve harvested somewhere over 100,000 pounds this year. Over 72,000 acres is what we put out for as our harvest area. It’s been a really, really good year. All the stars have lined up.”
The Savannah U.S. Army Corps of Engineers satellite office on Fort Stewart facilitates the administration and solicitation of the contract to harvest and sell the palmetto berries, said T.J. Quarles, Forestry Branch planning management supervisor. It is the same process the installation uses for any other forest products sold, like pine trees, hardwood trees, pinecones for seed extraction, and other resources.
“We figured out we had a forest product we didn’t have a lot tied up in,” Quarles said. “It is a relatively low-labor, low-cost activity for us for saw palmetto berries. There’s not a whole lot of labor put into it. It’s recognizing we have a potential market and giving that land mass to the Army Corps of Engineers for administration.”
Harvested berries are weighed in daily at the Corp of Engineers Fort Stewart satellite office. The berries are then sold by the pound in a bidding process by the corps, Quarles said. The funds collected by the sales go back into the federal treasury to purchase equipment for timber management, controlled burns, and other land management resources. That land management
“The money goes back to the Army forestry program to help support it,” he said. “That provides an opening land scape for the Soldier to do his or her training on the landscape.”
Harvesting begins mid-September, Carter said, when the berries are green or orange. Harvesters go to each bush with a bucket or basket, place the basket under the berries and tap the berries into the bucket. Berries that stay on the vine get plucked off by hand. The full buckets are consolidated into burlap sacks for weighing and transport.
“We want to pick them in the first two stages,” he said.
The third and final stage reveals the berries black color. Wildlife enjoy the berries the most at this stage, and they burst easily, making them more difficult if not impossible to harvest for sale, Carter said.
“They get messy in that stage,” he said.
Fort Stewart first harvested palmetto berries in 2017 when people asked the Forestry Branch about picking them.
“That’s when the market started taking off,” Carter said.
Fort Stewart worked with the Corps of Engineers to administer the process, and every year since the Forestry Branch has refined the process for harvesting. In past years, the record harvest was 65,000. Carter found that the prescribed burn program has an impact on when the palmettos yield the most berries; areas that had been burned three to four years ago usually had the most fruitful harvests.
The global market for palmetto berries is $130 to $150 million a year. They are used in the manufacturing of health supplements for prostate health and hair loss, Quarles said.