MODESTO — Deep-green tufted cylinders of banded asparagus beckoned. Roly poly beets, their manes of raggedy leaves cinched into bundles, posed seductively. The cool gray-green of stiffly curled kales stood aloof from the shameless scarlet of beaming strawberries.
Vegetables, so often a side dish, got top billing Saturday morning at the opening of the Modesto Certified Farmers Market on 16th Street.
"We've been waiting," said Cheryl Thompson, a market regular picking out produce with husband, Robert. "It's just fresher than you get at the grocery store."
Sally Amaral perused the still early selection of vegetables with a practiced eye. "We're vegetarians, so we look for organic and fresh, local stuff, (and) buy with the seasons. We can't always, but we try to cook that way," she said.
Vendor Efren Garcia said he'd planted three months ago to be ready for today, following a year-round cycle for his plan-ahead greens and root vegetables.
Tomatoes, bell peppers and melons still are just a gleam in gardeners' eyes. Avid gardener Jean Calkins said she counts on farmers markets for produce she doesn't grow. "In the middle of summer when the tomatoes are on, I don't come. But early and late, I come," she said.
Customer Tiffany Brinkman, eagerly bagging Garcia's carrots, said she's a regular. "I'm freaking out," she said and laughed, canvassing the piled tables planted in her path. "I've been waiting all month."
Sandy Sample was eying organic strawberries. "I've been waiting for this. I get lettuce and berries, then in the summer, it's fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit!" she said.
Bill and Yuko Swartz came for the kettle corn but found themselves picking out tomato plants at Bob Cushing's stand. "I've never even heard of this kind before. These are something very fancy, I think," Yuko Swartz said.
Cushing started the plants at his La Grange greenhouse six weeks ago. He cycles through farmers markets in Sonora, Oakdale and Modesto every week.
Crates of strawberries laid in pointed rows and offered as samples drew crowds to Rudy Vasquez's stand. Vasquez said the berries were planted in early November, after the last farmers market he follows finished. Six months in season, six months off season has been his life for the 35 years, he said. He's been with the Modesto market since it started.
His strawberries perch near rows of deep-gold honey, not far from freshly baked breads and down a ways from the cheese seller. Eateries, craft stalls and a singer strumming a guitar also beguiled strolling shoppers in the packed aisle.
But for the first Saturday sale of the season, veggies were the main dish.
The Modesto Certified Farmers Market runs 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Starting in May, it will add the same hours on Thursdays. The season runs to late fall. To learn more, visit www.modestocfm.com.