As warm weather thawed the city yesterday, folks from miles around gathered at the D.C. Farmers Market to sort out and select some of the choicest fruits and vegetables that farmers on the East Coast have to offer.

You like collard greens? They had collard greens by the bushel -- long tables loaded with big fat leaves of greens that had many mouths watering at the thought they would be served up with ham hocks, corn bread, sweet potatoes and barbecue, probably after church today.

"I'm getting these greens for my mother to cook," said Marion Cephas, who studied her leaves like a palm reader. "I prefer the smaller leaves because they are more tender." Her younger shopping companions, Diane Jones and Jones' daughter, Kristal, took note and nodded with new understanding.

The farmers took note, too, and smiled with pride at the colorful selection of wholesome, fresh foods that had taken them months of labor to bring to the market, located in the parking lot of RFK Stadium in Northeast Washington.

With weatherworn faces and strong hands, the farmers were testimonials to the fact that it takes tough people to grow food for a living; and no matter how bad their plight had been, there was a heartfelt belief that no storm lasts forever.

"Last year was rough," said Raymond Stagner, 41, who works a fruit orchard in Smithsburg, Md. "The peaches and nectarines froze out. But this year is better."

While most of the shoppers were sleeping yesterday morning, the farmers were up -- well before sunrise -- checking their inventory and loading their trucks, preparing for drives that took up to four hours.

From Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, they began rolling in at around 5:30 a.m., setting up tables and weighing scales and strapping on the money bags.

Farmers, like most people, don't like to talk about how much money they make -- or lose. But as a group, they are hurting. Farm economists estimate that about 625,000 farms with annual livestock and produce sales of between $40,000 and $500,000 are in trouble if they are heavily in debt -- which many of them are.

Farm equity dropped from a record high of $908 billion in 1981 to $811 billion in 1985, a decrease of 11 percent with more income losses expected.

The D.C. Farmers Market usually attracts farmers with a couple of hundred acres or less and even those who grow food as a hobby, such as Joseph and Romaine Bullock, retirees who keep bees and make honey at their home in Greencastle, Pa.

But very few people associated with farming have been unaffected by the crisis.

Bullock complains: "The government is giving away the honey, and that hurts my sales. And the big honey dealers are bringing in foreign honey, and that hurts my sales. My honey is the best, and the government should just get out of it."

Complaining does not come naturally to a farmer at a farmers market, so conversation quickly moves back to the business at hand. You like sweet potatoes? They have sweet potatoes as big as a man's foot. Do you use cracklin' in your greens? Do you know what cracklin' is? The farmers do and they will sell you some and tell you how to eat it.

Farmers love to tell people how to select the food and even how to cook it. Despite the hard times, many of them say they love their work and would not trade jobs for anything.

"Farming is fun; it's hip. It'll do," said Raymond Stagner Jr., 16, his father's right-hand man and a member of the Future Farmers of America. With optimism beaming in his face, he unloaded another crate of oranges and declared, "People got to eat."

"Plenty folk are going out of business, though," the elder Stagner cautioned.

"But somebody's got to grow the food," the younger Stagner said. And when the youth added emphatically that "I plan to follow in my father's footsteps," the older farmer cut a prideful glance at his son and went about his business.