DOTT, PA. -- Spring training, so to speak, was complete and the farmer was psyched up and ready for Opening Day, a ritual April event in which he envisioned himself being very impressive in his first turn at the plate.

Opening Day in this context was the first day at a farmers' market in the city, an event as important for renewing old friendships with customers as it was for again seeing farmer friends and stoking the old rivalries.

The farmer may make too much of this, but the race to have the earliest lettuce or the first ripe tomato is one of the things that drives him. It makes him take too many risks in cool weather, but the pride swells when he can best a rival from warmer Maryland or Virginia.

So the farmer this time picked his target -- an expert grower named Francis Roland, who also is driven by the same desire to be first, even though he doesn't like to admit it. The farmer knew that Roland's goat would be gotten when lettuce from Dott, Pa., showed up before lettuce from Friendly, Md.

Roland took this humiliation with his customary good grace, but there was a glint of revenge in his eye. A couple weeks later, Roland tauntingly called the farmer from across the market. As customers turned to follow the badinage, Roland held up one of the largest, prettiest, bright green lettuces the farmer had ever seen.

"What in the world is that?" the farmer asked, now trying to hide his chagrin. "It's a Tango variety," Roland said. It took the farmer a while to realize that he'd just been put down twice -- not only did he not recognize the variety, he'd just been taught that one does not harvest a lettuce before its time.

More comeuppances awaited the farmer in the ensuing weeks.

Sharon Blankenbaker showed up with a mountain of lovely radishes before the farmer had even put a radish seed in the ground. Susan Planck and Hana Newcomb humbled the farmer with their early spinach.

Andy Green came rushing up on a Sunday in early May, one hand behind his back and a smirk on his face. "I brought something for you," Green said, thereupon whipping out a field-ripened tomato. The farmer tried to make light of this tomato, noting that the fruit had been helped along by a greenhouse-like plastic covering, but he'd been stung and it didn't feel good.

The next Sunday Green went through the same drill, this time holding out a summer squash. Game, set, match. The farmer now was plainly on the defensive, left only to vow that somehow Green would be paid back next year.

All of this is in fun, of course, and it's mostly the extent of the socializing among truck farmers once their growing season begins. There is no time for visiting so the markets become their social center, a place to gossip, trade notes and whine about the weather.

There are several dozen of these markets in the Washington area, which Susan Planck likes to call the most egalitarian of institutions. Where else, she once pointed out, can one see families of blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics, the young and the old and the handicapped all working together and caring about each other.

Well, probably no place. So there is grief when it is learned that Sharon has lost her husband and there is relief when a question about Roland's health is cleared up. There is pride when Jerry Worrell's daughter is chosen as queen of an agricultural fair and Green's daughter makes the track team at the Maryland School for the Blind.

The farmers feel good when they see a bright little first grader like Jake Ricci, the son of Tony and Becky, making small bunches of flowers and offering them for sale only to grade-school children at the market. They get pleasure from knowing that Nina Planck is doing well at college and that her brother Charles will marry in September.

This sense of family extends beyond the farmers to their customers, who greet their return to the city and inquire caringly about their crops and how they passed the winter. The farmers in turn learn the names of the children and remember the tastes of their parents, often setting aside coveted items for them.

All of this helps to reaffirm the farmer's faith in the goodness of people, yet it still is something of a revelation to him. He is flattered that customers he barely knows would invite him to their homes, that customers take the time to bring him recipes and baked goods, that a customer would call long distance to apologize for what she fears was an offensive remark at the market that morning.

And then there are simply astounding things, such as the day that a woman offered Bill Waller, a personable chap who grows and sells plants, the free use of her condo in Montana if he followed through with his plans to vacation out there some day. Waller had met her only moments before.

But this is the way people are at the markets. Unkind words are not heard and denizens of the city, given the opportunity of face-to-face encounters, continue to show that they are the American farmers' best and most supportive friends.

These are pleasures not known to farmers who grow the grains and drive the huge machines on the distant plains. These are pleasures of the truckpatch and they help to justify all the the time spent on hands and knees, cosseting the carrot that will bring praise from an appreciative eater in the city.

It makes the race to have the first ripe tomato not so important after all.

Ward Sinclair is a former Washington Post agriculture reporter who now farms a Pennsylvania truckpatch.