Twenty years ago, Les and Pam Pahl set up a small vegetable stand on a corner of York Road with 14 other farmers. A handful of customers stopped by for asparagus on their way home.
Today, what became the Towson Farmers' Market attracts more than 2,000 people to a long stretch of Allegheny Avenue between restaurants and antiques shops. Customers at the eagerly anticipated event aren't looking for just asparagus anymore. They're also buying hand-picked strawberries, potatoes, zucchini and flowers.
Other farmers have come and gone, but the Pahls -- with their four children now -- are as much a staple of the Thursday event as the diminutive, white-haired women who push metal carts and carry canvas bags.
"Oh my goodness, I've been coming here 20 years now, and it just wouldn't be the same without them," said Marjorie Lehnhoff, 76, who drove from Glen Elyn in Harford County for the market's opening yesterday to buy produce from the Pahls.
"I look forward to this every year and I always know when I come to the Pahls, everything is fresh and immaculate," said Lehnhoff, who left with her husband, Leroy, 76, carrying string beans, squash, kale, beets and cherries in a brown Hecht's bag.
For many visitors, the market is a day filled with fun, food and sunshine.
A day in which Towson's button-down business district blossoms into a fairlike atmosphere with children wearing balloon hats and adults tapping anxiously on their watches, waiting for sales to begin at 10: 45 a.m. so they can pounce on their favorite basket of cucumbers.
But for people like the Pahls -- who are fifth-generation farmers in Baltimore County -- tailgate farmers' markets are their lifeblood.
To pay the bills, the Pahls cultivate 140 acres in Granite and 12 acres in Pikesville, producing fruits and vegetables for a family-owned stand and five farmers' markets in the Baltimore region.
The Pahls are a dwindling breed, according to the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service. In Baltimore County, 781 farms are left, a drop of 59 farms since 1992. More and more farms are disappearing to make way for development. Some farmers are growing old, dying or have become tired of working the soil and praying for good weather.
But farming is all Les Pahl knows.
And it's a life he loves, despite the early mornings and late nights in the field sowing, weeding and irrigating, despite the pests, and despite the droughts.
Plucking plump berries from a vine with hands that are worn and embedded with soil in the cracks and crevices, Les Pahl said, "I love watching the plants grow."
His great-great-grandfather, Peter Gompf, immigrated to Maryland from Germany 143 years ago and bought 30 acres in Pikesville. When Gompf grew too old to till the land, his children drew straws for parts of the farm.
That is how he inherited the land from his parents, said Les Pahl, who expanded into Granite in 1975.
Planting starts at the end of March with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and peas.
At the end of September, the last of the crops such as spinach, collards and mustard turnips are planted. After the final picking in December, the next two months is spent pruning and fixing farm equipment.
"It's hard work," Pam Pahl said. "It's so scary and risky because it's so easy to get wiped out, but even the kids love it. Not too many kids can say that they are farmers anymore."
That's why long before the sun rises over a field of sweet corn, Les Pahl and his family can be found loading up boxes of raspberries, beets and rhubarb. When they're not riding tractors and plows, they're zooming around the land on golf carts and four-wheel motorbikes.
Donna, 12, and Jennifer, 9, tend to the flower gardens while twins Dan and Greg, 5, weed their watermelon patch. All swear they will farm this land until they grow old.
The work is worth it, Pam Pahl said yesterday morning as she and the children set up a tent on Allegheny Avenue for the start of Towson's market.
"These markets aren't just a benefit for customers who like fresh food brought directly to their neighborhoods, they're also great for farmers," she said, shooing her sons away from munching on raspberries.
"It's nice to see some of the other farmers after months of work. It's great to see all the people from last year because a lot of customers stick with you."
It wasn't long before the boys, wearing green farmers' market caps and tiny white aprons, found blueberries across the street at the Black Rock Orchard stand. Down the street, the aroma of fresh baked bread drifted through the area from the stand for Bakery Du France of Rockville.
"This is the best weekday market going," said David Hochheimer, 42, a Carroll County farmer who has been selling apples and strawberries and apricots at the Towson market almost as long as the Pahls.
"Like the Pahls, we're not a big enough farm for the wholesale market so we make a living from these tailgate markets," Hochheimer said. "As you can see, it's an instant gathering of people."
Doris Williams of Towson agreed. She's been walking to the market for five years.
"I wouldn't miss it," said Williams, 78, who bought green beans, cherries and potatoes. "It's so festive. So many people we can meet and greet. I wait all year for this. One person can only eat so much, but to me, it's like going to a candy store."