Farmer Chip Planck--skin-chapped, eyes-wizened--was showing off the yield of his land to best advantage one recent morning at the Arlington Farmers Market: piles of zucchini, and summer squash, his table a concoction of plywood and cardboard cartons that suits the nomadic grower in the midst of market season.
Planck admired his wares. They were all there: the pretty, the lopsided and the just plain ugly. He and his farmer friends and many city-dwellers who troll the stalls are seekers of the unusual, epicures of the home-grown and the old-fashioned. They have a place for the most humble vegetable.
"We will display the funny-looking cucumber," said Planck, who gave up a job as a political science professor at the University of Buffalo in the '70s to farm in the hills of Loudoun County. "People are interested in things they don't see in the wholesale food stream."
He means varieties like the "Mister Stripy" tomato.
"A Mister Stripy is not real pretty," observed Jim Huyett, who trucks produce from the Charlestown, W.Va., farm his great-great-grandfather started. "They'll be kind of gnarled on top. But the people that are really connoisseurs of tomatoes will go back to the Mister Stripy."
These days, there are enough connoisseurs of the weird, as well as the fresh, to drive a boom in the farmers market business. Many local farmers such as Planck are trucking produce to a dozen or more markets a week during the growing season, and some are boarding college interns to help with the planting, picking and hoeing.
The number of farmers markets nationally jumped from 1,755 in 1994 to 2,746 at the end of 1998, according to Ann Harvey Yonkers of the American Farmland Trust, which does not keep statistics on the D.C. area. But in its annual listing of markets published this spring, The Washington Post named 50 "producers" markets, which allow only locally grown products. That is an increase of 40 percent over the number listed in 1996.
Each market has its own character, said Susan Planck, 58, co-owner with her husband, Chip, 58, of Wheatland Vegetable Farms. And she should know. The Plancks sell at 16 each week, and are among a growing number of farmers who are transforming farmers markets into a small industry.
Different as local markets are from one another, they all seem to celebrate what some call an old-fashioned social exchange between people who peddle home-grown food and those who eat it.
From Rockville to Manassas, many city-dwellers and suburbanites say they appreciate knowing the people who grow their kohlrabi and spinach.
For longtime marketgoers such as Rusty Clauss, 69, who was shopping in the Mount Vernon Market last Thursday, the trip is something to look forward to all week.
"It's community," said Clauss. "It's the closest thing we have in a large urban area to the one-on-one kinds of relationships that you have in small towns." And the "urban edge" farmers who serve the markets, which allow only food grown within 125 miles, find the circle is completed when they meet the people who eat their produce.
"I'm not one of those farmers who wants to stay back in the woods and hide from everybody," said Forrest Pritchard, 25, who with his sister raises "chemical-free" beef and eggs on the family's ancestral land near the Shenandoah River. "This is a lot more interaction. It's relationship-building. I think most people are interested in perpetuating agriculture, the farming life. . . . I think it makes people feel good to know farmers, to buy from farmers."
One of the Pritchards' customers is so taken with his eggs and beef that he sends his driver to the Middleburg Market every week to pick up a supply.
"A lot of people have never seen the things we're growing," Chip Planck said. "They enjoy meeting people they've only seen in [Archer] Daniels Midland ads."
Alice Waters, who gained culinary fame serving "market cuisine" at her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, has become a voice for the farmers market renaissance, and she plans to do signings of her latest cookbook in farmers markets across the country.
"I think we've been for a very long time disconnected with our food and where it comes from," Waters said. "I think that people are also very hungry for the social communication that can happen . . . naturally in the course of shopping at the farmers market, and that's missing in people's lives."
Adding to the popularity of the markets is the surprise of coming across something exotic--buffalo milk mozzarella cheese sold by one Loudoun farmer or a half dozen varieties of something common--such as peas.
Technical writer Brad Kukuk, 34, was in search of an heirloom apple, the Arkansas Black Twig, at the Arlington market last week.
"They're the best eating apple," Kukuk said.
No problem, said Maryland farmer Francis Roland, 70, of Friendly. He would have them come fall, the fruit of a 100-year-old tree.
Customers also want more familiar, homey foods like sweet corn, peaches, cherries. Those continually sell well, farmers report.
And regular shoppers learn to expect food only when it's in season, another aspect of the authentic agricultural eating experience.
"Customers get to say, 'Okay, within 100 miles of Washington the spinach is in, but peaches aren't so, I'm going to eat spinach,' " Susan Planck said.
The farm long ago outgrew the family's ability to work it, and each summer the Plancks hire college students to help.
"You're totally healthy, and you eat better than you've ever eaten," said one of the interns, Hope Temple, 22, a 1999 graduate of Wesleyan University, who was digging into a helping of squash pancakes for her lunch at the farm one day last week.
Many of the markets got started by farmers themselves, who pushed extension agents and local officials to make a little space available once a week on a street or in a parking lot.
In Dupont Circle, Yonkers, education director at American Farmland Trust and a trained chef, went around the neighborhood three years ago, collecting pledges of support from shopkeepers and and other business owners willing to offer coffee or volunteer their help. Demand for the weekly market was immediate, Yonkers said. A line of hungry gourmets lines up behind her Sunday mornings waiting for her bell-ringing signal that the market is open.
"The quality of the produce and the simplicity of the marketing is in distinct contrast to what we get every day of our lives when we live in cities," Yonkers said.
CAPTION: Maryland farmer Lana Edelen, of Faulkner, weighs cucumbers for a customer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture farmers market at 12th Street and Independence Avenue SW.
CAPTION: Mike Young shops for his family's weekly produce every Friday at the farmers market at the Department of Agriculture in Southwest Washington.
CAPTION: Hope Temple, 22, a worker at Wheatland Vegetable Farms, uses a hand seeder to lay out a field of beet seeds.