AVE MARIA — They shed their city-folk attire to gather, dressed in blue jeans, in a field just outside of Ave Maria, in the heart of the local farm belt.
There, they stood around so-called "tables" made from piled-up wooden pallets for the annual Farm City BBQ, a longtime "town and country" event that offers a chance for community and business leaders from urbanized, coastal Collier County and its agricultural inland region to meet in a relaxed, down-home setting.
Wednesday's event, hosted by the Barron Collier Companies, drew a record crowd of more than 1,300 and was on track to raise net proceeds of nearly $40,000. Both these figures shattered the previous records of 1,100 attendees and $25,000 raised.
The money is shared among the Collier County 4-H Association, Youth Leadership Collier, the Collier County Junior Deputy League and Key Club International.
A long line stretched around the big white tent at lunchtime Wednesday, with diners waiting patiently for their turn to pick up a plateful of steak, beans, corn on the cob and "Immokalee salad." If there was a holdup causing the line, perhaps it was the inexperienced wait staff.
State Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, passed out the Styrofoam plates, U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder doled out steaks, and Sheriff Kevin Rambosk and School Board Chairman Roy Terry ladled out the baked beans. Additional servers included schools Superintendent Kamela Patton, State Attorney Steve Russell, School Board member Kathleen Curatolo, Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards, Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock and Naples Councilman Sam Saad.
County Manager Leo Ochs, wearing Farm Bureau overalls, handed out ears of corn, and Collier Commissioners Donna Fiala and Tom Henning dished out the salad.
That Immokalee salad — made without lettuce and served without dressing — is one of the longstanding Farm City BBQ traditions in Collier County. It features tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers and jalapeños, all local products, in addition to pimento-stuffed olives.
In the early days of the local Farm City get-together, agricultural workers would cut up the veggies and toss them into the back of a pickup truck, longtime resident and attendee Jerry Schroer said.
"It's not quite the same now," he said. "Back then, we were right in the middle of an orange grove, and no one worried about wearing plastic gloves."
Just when the early days started is unclear. The national Farm City event, celebrating Farm City Week nationwide, is celebrating its 57th year. But no records exist to establish just when the local luncheon started, publicist Cyndee Woolley said.
Pat Cookson, a second-generation cook helping get the food to the platters, said she has been helping out at the event for 30 to 35 years.
Chris Hagan and Gigi Amols brought their cocker spaniel, Lily, in full dude ranch getup, with chaps, leather vest, badge and six shooters to go along with her bandana and "one gallon" hat.
Some eaters drew on their experience to make the stand-up dining easier. Skip Soper brought his own steak knife, so he didn't have to depend on the plastic cutlery supplied.
"After seven years, you start to figure things out," he said.
But the day is more about making connections, bumping into old friends and networking with new ones.
"This day brings so many people together," said Paul Lindabury, a Naples resident since 1955, at the event to help out with the Junior Deputies program. The Junior Deputies, Sheriff's Explorers, and 4-H kids helped out with setup and traffic control.
"I'm seeing everyone I know," Passidomo said as she handed out plates to the never-ending stream of eaters. "This is still a small town."
Among the jeans-clad throngs, one guy did show up in a business suit.
David Arter of Private Client Insurance Services said the attire helps him stand out, and besides, he wasn't going to change his ways.
"I wear a suit every day," he said.