In the gray, early-morning light, Dave Reid heaved crates of apples and pears, pots of sunflowers and flats of heirloom tomato plants from his white box truck to nearby folding tables.
The orchard owner had been up since 3:30 a.m., having driven nearly 80 miles yesterday from his farm in Buchanan Valley, Pa., to the asphalt parking lot tucked under the Jones Falls Expressway.
The occasion? Opening day at the Baltimore Farmers' Market.
"This one's the gorilla - the biggest market, the best market, the oldest market in town," Reid said. "It's the granddaddy of the Baltimore markets."
Carmen and Frank Nemic of Perry Hall were among the first wave of customers to arrive yesterday, strolling onto the market grounds at Holliday and Saratoga streets in downtown Baltimore more than an hour before the official 8 a.m. start time.
The couple wasn't even sure whether the market had opened yet for the season.
"We just took a chance and drove down here," Carmen Nemic said. "When we were coming off [Interstate] 83, we saw the tents up and thought, 'Yea, it's open.'"
The farmers' stands overflowed with the colors, tastes and smells of spring.
New Guinea impatiens, portulaca, Gerber daisies and geraniums burst with bright shades of pink, red, orange and white while tall irises and hanging plants swayed in the breeze.
The scent of rosemary and cilantro mingled with basil and thyme, spilling from tiny pots ready for planting. Rotund radishes sat beside salad greens, asparagus, spinach, collards and kale, covering every shade of green.
And food vendors hawked everything from smoothies and spice packets to ginger lemonade and pit beef.
"As a food lover and a breakfast-food hater, it does my heart good to see so many people lined up for a beef sandwich at 8 in the morning," said Joe Schweiger of Medfield, a wine and spirits manager for Eddie's of Roland Park who arrived at the market with his wife, Li, in search of meat pies and potted plants.
Of Maryland's 72 farmers' markets, the Jones Falls Sunday bazaar is among the earliest to open. Five markets operate year-round and five others kicked off the season last month. The Baltimore market - in its 27th year - was one of eight to open this weekend.
It's a place that attracts as many as 10,000 people on busy weekends, from dressed-up women in high heels and hats to dressed-down men in shorts and T-shirts. Uniformed police officers, hospital workers and jail guards working the overnight shift often stop by the market on their way home for fresh produce, breakfast or - in the case of the man who regularly orders rare beef sandwiches from the Beef Barrons stand - a late dinner.
Customers seek out their favorite vendors, whom they typically know only as "the tomato lady" or "the pea guy" or "the mesclun people."
Some farmers, such as mushroom stand owner Ferial Welsh of Chester, Pa., relish the chance to cultivate relationships with their clientele, explaining how their crops are grown and recommending recipes or methods of preparation. "You have to try these," Welsh said, pointing out a creamy-white, spiky variety called pompom mushrooms. "They taste like crab meat when you cook them."
Other farmers consider the markets a necessary byproduct of their more enjoyable time in the fields and fruit groves.
"I would much rather be sitting out with my shirt off on the tractor getting a tan," said Scott Williams, who farms 60 acres of salad greens, herbs and other vegetables in Uniontown. "But I love this market. This is the one market I do."
With the selling season under way and many area farmers' markets operating Saturday and Sunday mornings, growers have settled in for six or seven grueling months of harvests, plantings and sales.
When Joseph Bartenfelder, a Baltimore County councilman who runs his family's farming operations in Fullerton and Preston, went to church last week, he told his priest, "Now that the markets are starting, you probably won't see me again until Thanksgiving."
A list of Maryland farmers' markets and their hours of operation can be found at www.mda. state.md.us/market/md.html.