The cool early morning was overcast, promising to yield an oppressively muggy day. A breeze carried the faint smell of fresh onions and the sounds of people haggling over the price of tomatoes. Sunburnt farmers talked among themselves about how they could have sold more if only they had brought more.

The grand opening of the Arlington County Farmers' Market was not as grand as it might have been, with only eight small stalls and a generally sparse crowd. But with some sunny Saturdays and more word-of-mouth advertising, the sponsors of the market believe that what started as a slight disappointment can become a flourishing community enterprise.

Organizers from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service said more than 30 farmers had signed up for the market, which was held in the parking lot of the Arlington County Courthouse. But since only eight showed up, a good part of their produce was sold by 8 a.m., only an hour after the market opened.

"We call them producers instead of farmers," said county extension agent C. Francis Lay, "because some of them (like the beekeepers) are homeowners who have jobs. All of them said they had more produce at home they could have sold. As the season goes on, there'll be more variety. And we had shoppers waiting at 7 a.m. when we opened."

The idea for the market, Lay said, came from four citizen activists, one of whom happens to be County Board member Ellen Bozman.

After the County Board passed a resolution creating the market, Lay was given the task of organizing and publicizing the effort.

Lay said he worked with agricultural extension offices in Alexandria and the District to enlist volunteers to help with the weekly management of the market. Arlington residents were offered free training at a 50-hour horticultural course in return for 50 hors of their time, which they would spend working in the extension office and overseeing the Saturday morning market. One purpose of the plan was to help save money.

"As our budget gets tight," Lay said, "we have to think of ways to spread the money around. Most people enjoy volunteering. We'll offer the course again this fall, and we hope to have an advance course."

The bona fide farmers who came to Arlington Saturday said they had split the day's work with their spouses, who were running market stalls or roadside stands elsewhere.

Silas Martin, of Amissville, Va., said his wife was selling produce in Warrenton. He left home for Arlington at 5 a.m. with a load of cabbage, green onions, strawberries, walnuts (which sold for 50 cents an ounce), chocolate cakes his wife baked, petunias and other small plants.

"I'll have white corn and everything you grow in a garden later in the season," Martin said. "I'll have to double-up on the strawberries next time."

Nancy Miller, of Berryville, Va.., said her family has had a roadside stand outside Leesburg since 1940. She attracted many of the Arlington customers with hydroponically grown tomatoes (at 90 cents a pound) and lettuce (at 50 cents a head). She explained the method used to grow the brilliant red tomatoes as a line of patrons listened.

"We have four greenhouses and each one holds 1,000 plants. You walk in there, it's just like a jungle, you wouldn't believe it. And there is no dirt allowed.

"Each vine lives 14 months, and we can pick off the same vine till it dies. We raise them year-round and pick tomatoes when it's snowing."

A darkly tanned, gregarious woman, Miller solicited a pocket knife from a bystander. She sliced open one tomato to prove its firm ripeness.

"These tomatoes will keep for three weeks on a shelf without being refrigerated," she said. "We used to raise them outside, hoeing weeds all the time. But if a drought comes, no tomatoes."

The wonder of cultivating hydroponically, with plants immersed in water, was only one topic on Miller's mind.

"I've sold more today than I have all week," she said, dipping into her change box. "I could have brought brown eggs for 75 cents a dozen, but I didn't know how (the market) would do on the first day."

Next to Miller's stall, Wayne Mewhoter was offering potted plants, but he did not share Miller's enthusiasm for the market.

"I'm selling these for $4 each, but I guess people would rather go to a nursery and spend $15," Mewhorter said. "I'd rather sell them for that than load them back up. My wife says I'm crazy."

Mewhorter, who is retired, displayed an array of small evergreens, hydrangeas and freshly picked parsley and chives. Although the parsley was sold out and the chives seemed to be moving well, Mewhorter was most proud of his euonymus plants, which he said are not affected by insects known as scales.

"These are a special strain of euonymus. They're scale-resistant and they don't freeze," said Mewhorter. "I've been working on it for 20 years. I bought the strain from a man who brought it into Sears Roebuck when I was working in the garden shop there. It's the hardiest plant in existence."

Dark and light honey and honeycombs from beekeepers in Northern Virginia were selling at a table manned by Bob Ferris, of Arlington. Among the goods was honey from Ferris' own hives in Accomack County, Virginia.

Ferris said he got interested in beekeeping when he brought a hive home for his daughter. He now has 25 hives and says beekeeping might become more of a major interest for him when he retires from the military.

The reactions of shoppers who drifted through the market ranged from good to bad to indifferent. For the most part, any of the food -- vegetables, baked goods, honey -- sold well, while such things as plants stayed on the shelf.

Shopper Angela Manning, of Arlington, wondered aloud if she could get into the seller's end of the market by hawking homebaked bread from the back of her station wagon.

G. M. Gilbert, of Falls Church, thought $1.60 was "expensive" for three of Miller's tomatoes, but was willing to reserve judgment until he had had a taste. Mary Myers, of Fairfax, commented that she would prefer vine-ripened tomatoes.

Another woman stood stock still in the path between the stalls. She pivoted around, surveying the proferred goods.

"Is this it?" she asked.

For last Saturday, yes. But say the organizers, business should pcik up as area residents learn about the market, and as the variety of produce improves with the summer months.