If, while driving around Oakland Mills today with your windows down, you find yourself fantasizing about a fabulous meal under a wisteria arbor in Tuscany, inhale deeply. That's fresh-cut basil you're breathing.
Now, follow your nose to the parking lot of the Oakland Mills Village Center and you will find not only bunches of that fragrant herb but bushels of tomatoes, trucks full of Silver Queen corn picked hours ago and bunches of red zinnias, magenta cockscombs, lavender cosmos, pink gladioluses and snapdragons of seemingly every hue.
"This is wonderful! When are they going to start having it twice a week?" said Judi Soustek, of Stevens Forest, last week as she sought out organic vegetables and farmers in the mood to schmooze over them.
Howard County's new farmer's market, organized by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, is operating only once a week -- from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays. But judging from the response after only three weeks, people will soon be clamoring for more.
"I had my doubts about this, but business is booming. These people come out in all kinds of weather," said Andy Schneider, of Carroll County, as he sold corn to shoppers braving last week's rain.
Schneider, selling alongside farmers from Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Eastern Shore, Western Maryland and Howard County, also sells his flowers and vegetables at the farmer's
markets in Westminster and west Baltimore. The stands set up in the suburban parking lot last week offered fruit (watermelons, blueberries, raspberries, peaches), home-grown flowers (sized to fit in big vases or bud vases), baked goods (breads, mini-scones, cookies) and a multitude of vegetables and herbs.
The Columbia market is one of several the state has organized or plans to organize across Maryland, according to Ralph Hemphill, director of marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Since last year, there has been a weekly Southern Maryland Regional Farmer's Market and wholesale farmer's auction in a former tobacco warehouse in Cheltenham. In Garrett County, there has been a weekly Mountainfresh Producers' Association Tailgate Market in Oakland. Another market has just begun operating at the Chesapeake House rest stop on Interstate 95 in Newmarket.
The state provides the location for these markets, helps advertise them and guarantees that all the items are sold by the people who grew or made them.
"This market is pure," Hemphill said. "No middlemen."
On the Howard County market's first day last month, a party of uniformed employees from the nearby Giant supermarket strolled over to shop. The irony was not lost on the farmers.
"They know where the bargains are," said John Carty, a smiling former carpenter in a straw hat who has a family farm in Silver Run.
Cheaper prices are one of the market's biggest attractions, said Soustek, who usually travels to Baltimore to find food bargains.
"Prices in Columbia are 25 cents more than they are everywhere else," she said, pausing over Carty's tomatoes, "and way more than they are here."
Variety is another source of the market's appeal, according to William Dauer, who was wearing a suit and tie and had just come from the pharmaceutical distribution center where he is an assistant manager.
"Look at these wax beans," said the Columbia resident, holding up a plastic bag full of the yellowish vegetables. "You just can't get them in the supermarket."
The market's selection was tailored to a crowd with discriminating tastes -- people who know the difference between standard round beets and Italian formanova beets; who want Yukon Golds, not just any potatoes.
A Nigerian woman with Queen Nefertiti earrings snapped up okra at $1 a pint, explaining that "in my country, we cook this into a very nice soup."
Many of the stands advertised that their produce was organic. And the Flickerville Mountain Farm of Dott, Pa., even had the certification of the Organic Crop Improvement Association to prove it.
Then there are the less tangible attractions of farmer's markets, held in the open air, with people who make eye contact with you, kibitz with you, maybe cut you a deal on the price. It doesn't take much prompting to get Carty to tell how his eight-acre farm just south of the Pennsylvania state line got its name: Thistle Dew Fine.
"We came up with the name in the wee, wee hours, after much giddiness, the night before our first market," said the young family farmer, who, with his wife and children, raises goats, chickens, geese, wheat and vegetables.
"It's a nice experience, absolutely different from the plastic-type experience of a supermarket," Hemphill said. "You bring the family, chitchat with the farmers, ask them how they cook things. It's like Main Street in a little agricultural town."
Hemphill said the state's efforts are aimed not only at giving shoppers greater access to fresh local produce and an old-time way of shopping but also at helping small family farms survive.
"We want to make it more profitable for them, so they don't fold up and sell to developers," Hemphill said. "We want to give them an alternative market for their product."
The Oakland Mills market offered just that lifeline to James and Linda Brown, who proudly displayed a sign noting that they raise their corn, tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables right in Howard County. James Brown took a job with the Columbia Association three years ago. He had been milking a herd of about 70 cows on the 86-acre farm but couldn't make ends meet financially.
Now, however, with the farmer's market not far from their Triadelphia Road acreage, the family members farm for extra income and because they just plain like it, he said.
"We still have the farming aspect in our blood."