It's 7 minutes before 11 o'clock, the opening time of the farmers market at Hunt Valley Mall, but Mary Carter can't wait any longer.
The 67-year-old Towson resident jumps the gun. She begins stuffing a variety of farm-fresh goodies - Silver Queen corn, soft red tomatoes, jet black egg plants and yellow squash - into plastic bags hanging from her arm.
In her mind, she is grabbing up the best of the best, produce that was still on the vine the night before. Some of it had not been picked until this same morning.
Farmers markets do more than provide consumers with quality produce at a fair price. These markets also give farmers the opportunity to boost their income by cutting out the middleman and pocketing the full retail price for their produce.
"It is an important part of Maryland agriculture," said Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Virts. He said it gives growers a source of steady sales that can be the difference between paying their bills and losing the farm during difficult periods, such as the present, when grain and milk prices are at unprofitable levels.
There were a dozen eager shoppers lined up at the Glenville Farms canopy when the market opened.
Between stuffing produce in bags and taking in money, Cindy Yingling said she farms 900 acres just across the Pennsylvania line from Lineboro, a small rural town in northeastern Carroll County.
She said the 12 acres of fresh market produce accounts for about 25 percent of the farm's total annual sales.
"It's more rewarding, too," she said of direct sales to consumers. "We get to talk to the people who buy our produce. You don't get any customers' feedback on the field corn. The cows don't come up and say, 'We appreciate your hard work.'"
The sales activity is just as vigorous at the Black Rock Orchard booth operated by Emily Zaas, a fast-talking grower from Lineboro. It was like last-minute Christmas shopping at a department store. Buyers crowded the tables of fruit with money in hand.
"The raspberries are great," she tells shoppers. "I picked them last night."
Zaas, with help from her husband, daughter, son, two-full time workers and 15 summer part-timers, raises 40 acres of berries, plums, apples, nectarines and peaches.
They sell the fruit at eight, sometimes nine, markets in the Baltimore-Washington area each week.
Like other growers, Zaas declined to reveal the farm's total revenue or profit. "All I will say is that we have a lifestyle we enjoy and a good income," she said.
Tony Evans, who coordinates the Maryland Department of Agriculture's farmers market program, said a fruit farm's annual revenue will depend upon its volume. "If it has fruit all season - berries in the summer, followed by plums, nectarines, peaches and apples in the fall - and sells at three or four markets, it can gross $100,000 and up for a season," he said.
Evans estimated total sales at the Hunt Valley market, which opens in May and runs until the Thursday before Thanksgiving, at "$75,000 and up."
He said there was concern among the farmers that as the stores in the nearly vacant mall closed, it would have an adverse impact on sales at the 6-year-old market on the front parking lot.
"You usually piggyback off a mall's customers," Evans said. "But Hunt Valley has a very loyal customer base. People come, shop the farmers market, get in their cars and go back home."
The Hunt Valley market is one of 66 across the state opened with the assistance of the state agriculture department. In 1990, when the department got involved in the program, there were only 23.
The latest market in the state program opened this spring at The Avenue in White Marsh. It is open on Fridays. Evans said his survey revealed that it attracts about 500 regular customers each week.
He estimated that the 66 markets gross between $7 million and $10 million a year. About 600 state growers sell their produce at the markets.
"When we got involved in this program our mission was two-fold," Evans said. "Keep farmers on the farm and provide consumers with local fresh produce.
"We're not saying that our farmers are selling their produce cheaper than the grocery stores. That has never been a claim. Prices are about the same. All we are saying is that it's better because it's fresher."