Cars pulled off Ruxton Road, one after another Monday morning, almost as soon as the first crates of fruits and vegetables were unloaded from the large white truck parked on the shoulder.
At the roadside market operated by Hampstead-based Misty Valley Farm, under the shade of a tent, customers filled brown paper bags with tomatoes, peaches, squash and melons. They selected ears of white corn from a pile in the open back of the truck.
"I've never gotten a bad piece of fruit," said Megan Kelly of Towson, who stops at the Ruxton stand several times a week, even after work when more than a dozen cars can be lined up on the roadside. "They are friendly and helpful, and I'd rather support a local business."
The increasingly popular "buy local" movement has helped fuel demand for produce sold by Misty Valley and other roadside vendors, some of whom reappear each summer along Baltimore-area roads selling from the backs of trucks. Misty Valley sells crops from its Carroll County farm, other local farms and the Eastern Shore, a pre-dawn destination most days for owner Mark Fleischmann.
Though most consumers buy their fruits and vegetables at grocery stores, "there's increasing interest in buying local and knowing where your food comes from," said Mark Powell, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. One survey, by the University of Baltimore, has shown consumer interest in buying Maryland-grown produce has jumped to 78 percent from 55 percent in 2005, he said.
Thanks to that trend, the number of farmers' markets in the state has nearly doubled in less than a decade, to 137 locations, Powell said. It likely contributes to the business of the roadside vendors, he said, though he did not have statewide numbers for such operations, which are licensed by the state court system in each county.
For Misty Valley owner Fleischmann, the day typically starts at 3 a.m., when he makes the trek to the Eastern Shore for freshly picked corn. His usual destination is Wing's Landing Farm, near Easton, a fifth-generation, 400-acre farm that grows fruit and vegetables. The farm sells its produce to about 70 vendors, including about a dozen from the Baltimore and Annapolis areas, said Wayne Quidas, the owner. Half the farm's business is selling to roadside vendors and other retailers, and half is to wholesalers, he said.
Quidas said competition from grocers has had an effect on some of the smaller vendors.
"Some guys have gone out of the business over the years, and there don't seem to be many new ones popping up," he said.
Once Fleischmann loads up his truck, he heads back over the Bay Bridge to make deliveries to his roadside markets in Ruxton, Cockeysville and Hunt Valley. His employees start work about 7:30, when produce is loaded into the trucks that will be parked roadside until 6 p.m.
All the effort is appreciated by customers such as Bo Klaesius, the owner of an auto transmission business in Baltimore, who stopped by the Ruxton stand Monday.
"It's fresher, and it comes from local growers," Klaesius said of the produce sold at the roadside markets.
Fleischmann said business has remained steady, despite the greater competition from area grocers, and depends on the many regular customers who return year after year.
"We have our everyday customers, who come two or three times a week, and they know what they want," said Heather Schroeder, a recent college graduate who has worked three summers for Misty Valley. "You meet so many people, and it's nice to be outside."
On Monday, Mimi Piper of Roland Park, one of the regular customers, waited for the daily shipment of corn to be delivered by Fleishmann. He backed a large truckload of corn to the roadside market and with the help of Schroeder and employee Chris Thommen began transferring sacks to the smaller truck. Fleishmann said he expected to sell about a hundred bags of corn, each containing a dozen ears, by the end of the day, while Schroeder expected customers to buy nearly all of the 25 boxes of tomatoes.
Another roadside operation, run by Catonsville-based Delmarva Farms, sells Eastern Shore produce from pickup trucks shaded by colorful sun umbrellas. The vendors, who sell tomatoes, corn, melons and peaches, park along roadsides in Baltimore and Howard counties, typically staffed by international students working summer jobs.
Elizaveta Erysh, a 25-year-old university student from Russia participating in a student-work program, returned this June to work for Delmarva for her second summer. As cars whizzed past her spot on North Charles Street in Towson, she chatted with customers as she helped them select peaches and melons from the back of a blue truck.
Erysh said she has gotten to know many of her customers and their buying preferences. In turn, many have looked out for her, she said, including one family last summer that returned to her stand with disinfectant after she was stung by a bee and another customer who lent her a shawl to prevent worsening sunburn.
A regular customer, Jorges Castro-Romero, who works as a landscaper for homes in the area, often pulls up in his truck to buy watermelon, a necessity, he said Monday, for working outdoors in the heat.
Even after one full summer at the Towson location, Erysh said she hasn't quite become accustomed to the weather.
"I'm from Siberia," she said. "This is a little hot for me."