The Towson Farmers Market has become the place to shop for summer-ripe, fresh-off-the-vine, just plucked, absolutely fresh fruits, flowers and vegetables.
But who gets to sell produce at Baltimore County's oldest weekly farmers market has become increasingly competitive.
Currently, there is a three- to four-year wait for farmers to obtain a spot at the 16-year-old market, said Susan DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association, which sponsors it.
She attributes the demand to minimal turnover among the market's 20 vendors and the large number of customers who flock there each week.
Every Thursday, more than 2,000 visitors -- office workers, mothers with children in tow, men with shopping carts -- can be found strolling through the street market, loading up on produce.
It is indeed a food festival for the senses, with other goodies, like aromatic baked goods, pleasant herbs and fragrant wildflowers available.
"I'm addicted," said regular patron Helene Breazeale, a Towson State University administrator, while juggling an impressive bouquet of just-purchased sunflowers and a fresh-baked loaf of bread on a recent Thursday.
The market, which opened June 29 for the season, will continue operating weekly, rain or shine, through October along a closed-off block on Allegheny Avenue, between York Road and Washington Avenue in the heart of Towson. In a weekly tradition, a bell-ringer, usually a farmer's child, walks through the streets announcing its 10:45 a.m. start.
"It represents the best-organized and best-run farmers market in the state," said Dick Weaver, owner-manager of Hickory Hollow Farm in Finksburg, Carroll County, who has been selling vegetables at the market for six years.
One criteria for market farmers is that they be working farmers verified through the Baltimore County agricultural extension agency, Ms. DiLonardo said.
While there are restaurants along the street, the market itself has no on-site food vendor -- except, perhaps, the Bakery Du France of Rockville with its selection of croissants, baguettes and pastries.
"People ask for me," said Roger Testud, a partner in the bakery which has been with the market since its 1979 beginning.
The Pahl family is another original vendor. Its members operate a fifth-generation vegetable farm in Granite in western Baltimore County.
"It's a very nice market, a very successful market," said Pam Pahl, a mother of four who said she started picking corn at 6 a.m. to bring for last Thursday's sale.
Often, market day is a long day for the farmers.
Richard Seletzky of Richfield Farm in Manchester, Carroll County, was in his cornfield at 5:30 a.m. that morning, he said. His 20-year-old son, Ian, left their home at 1 a.m. to travel to the family's Eastern Shore property to gather more vegetables.
"This pays for his college," Mr. Seletzky said.
But for many farmers, the market is more than business as usual -- it also is a comfortable, social gathering.
"There's real camaraderie among the vendors," said Mary Ellen Miller, a single-parent sheep farmer from Freeland in Baltimore County who sells herbs at the Towson market. "My children have made friends. . . . You look forward to coming back."
As do the shoppers.
"I love it," said Beatrice Gibbons, who moved to Baltimore County from Chicago a year ago. "It's one of the reasons I stay in Towson."