Some growers have to skip Farm City BBQ

The sign told the story of local growers.

It read "No Vegetable Sale."

Because of Hurricane Wilma, there were no bags of locally grown vegetables to sell Wednesday at this year's Farm City BBQ in Collier County. The sign encouraged everyone to donate $10 toward a raffle ticket instead to help raise money for the Collier County 4-H Foundation.

David Baird and his daughter, Mackenzie Baird, visitors from Virginia, dance together Wednesday at the Farm City BBQ off Immokalee Road. The two were in Naples visiting family for Thanksgiving. More than 800 people attended this year's event at the Collier County extension office near the Collier County Fairgrounds. This was the 50th year for the event.

Photo by Tracy Boulian, Daily News

David Baird and his daughter, Mackenzie Baird, visitors from Virginia, dance together Wednesday at the Farm City BBQ off Immokalee Road. The two were in Naples visiting family for Thanksgiving. More than 800 people attended this year's event at the Collier County extension office near the Collier County Fairgrounds. This was the 50th year for the event.

Growers usually donate the vegetables as a fundraiser for 4-H, which provides college scholarships and other support programs to youngsters in Collier County.

Leadership Collier alumni volunteered to sell the raffle tickets for donated prizes at this year's barbecue and came up with the idea to call it a "No Vegetable Sale." They hoped to raise $2,500. Prizes included a pair of opal earrings valued at $359.

"We've got the time and the talent so we can help the kids," said George Drobinski, chief operating officer and district director for Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc. in Naples. "This is what's it all about, helping fill a void."

The bags of fresh produce weren't the only thing missing at the barbecue, which brings growers and city folks together every year to celebrate the people who help bring food from the field to the table.

Growers were also in short supply as they work to rebuild in the aftermath of Wilma, which swept through Southwest Florida on Oct. 24.

The Category 3 storm flooded vegetable fields, blew over citrus trees and knocked fruit to the ground. It destroyed packing houses and ripped apart greenhouses.

If vegetables growers had anything to harvest it was critical to get it on the truck Wednesday in time for Thanksgiving, said Gene McAvoy, a multi-county vegetable agent based at the Hendry County Extension office in LaBelle. He said many of the growers were probably not at the barbecue because they're still cleaning up the mess Wilma left behind.

Usually growers donate ears of corn and all the other vegetables served at the barbecue. But not this year. This year organizers had to go shopping at Sam's Club, said Robert Halman, county director for the Collier County Extension.

"Because of the storm, we don't have any local corn," he said. "We pretty much lost the crop."

Despite the shortage of vegetables, the barbecue still offered its signature Immokalee salad — a blend of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and olives served with a dash of salt and pepper and no dressing.

The menu also included grilled steak, baked beans and rolls.

Will Elliott, general manager for Co-Collier Citrus Harvesting in Immokalee, was one of the few growers in the crowd.

He said citrus growers are just starting to harvest their fruit but a lot of it has been lost to Wilma.

"The trees are looking better," he said.

"They are starting to recover a bit, but 50 percent of the oranges are on the ground and probably 75 to 80 of the grapefruit have been knocked off."

He said growers are still working to stand trees up to save what they can.

"Prices will go up because there's less fruit out there," Elliott said.

But when you don't have a lot of fruit to sell higher prices don't mean bigger profits.

"We'll just have to mind our costs this year," Elliott said.

More than 800 people attended the Farm City BBQ this year — the 50th year for the event, and it was held at the Collier County University Extension office off Immokalee Road near the Collier County Fairgrounds.

Tor Ostensen, a Fort Myers resident and a certified business consultant for Florida Gulf Coast University's Small Business Development Center, said he tries to go to the barbecue every year.

"It's a great time," he said after finishing off his down-home meal. "It's an awesome start to the holiday season."

The barbecue coincides with Farm City Week, a national celebration centered around Thanksgiving. It was started by the National Farm-City Council and promoted nationally by the American Farm Bureau.

In Florida, Farm City Week has become an important celebration.

The state has 44,000 commercial farmers, who grow more than 280 different crops.

Florida ranks second nationally in the U.S. production of fresh vegetables, a big part of which comes from Southwest Florida.

The state's agriculture industry has an economic impact of more than $62 billion annually.

"Every year, Farm-City Week reminds us all — rural and urban residents alike — that we live and work together in the same environment and depend on each other," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson in a written statement.

"In good times, that interdependence goes almost unnoticed by many. But, following a disaster when normal daily life is drastically disrupted, we're each reminded just how much we truly value the contributions of others."

© 2005 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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