By mid-morning Saturday, it was as thick as a beehive in the downtown Farmers Market, and Karen Kennerty told someone on the phone that she was running out of honey.

"Look how packed it is," added her husband, Dan, of Kennerty Farms on Wadmalaw Island. By 11 a.m. they had sold out of arugula and spinach.

On a perfect spring morning, thousands of people converged on Marion Square for the first market of the season, scooping up freshly picked asparagus, collard greens and other vegetables.

Dan Kennerty and other longtime vendors said it was one of the best openings in years.

"Everybody is glad to be out here," he said. "It was a long winter, as they always are."

Like the Cooper River Bridge Run a week before, the farmers market has become a rite of spring, a reassuring ritual for vendors and customers alike. Last year, the downtown market was ranked fifth-best in the country in a Travel & Leisure magazine survey.

Many vendors said re-opening the market helps kick-start their businesses for the rest of the year, something particularly important now in a fallow economy.

"Everything is looking real good this year," said Joseph Fields, motioning to a table of lettuce and spring onions. "We survived the rain and the freeze."

Fields is a third-generation farmer on Johns Island with hands as thick as baseball gloves. He started his day at 4:30 a.m., loading his trucks with onions, lettuce, kale and collards. Increasingly, Fields is a rarity — a farmer just nine miles from the heart of metro area's core.

Johns Island, once an agricultural powerhouse, has in recent years grown more subdivisions than crops. Now, Fields and other local farmers are trying new things to keep their businesses growing.

Fields, for instance, recently became a certified organic farmer, sending produce to Aluette's Cafe, Earthfare and other businesses that emphasize organic food. "It's more expensive to farm that way, but people like it," he said.

Rita Bachmann, owner of Rita's Roots at Thackeray Farms on Wadmalaw, said the farmers market helps solidify relationships between consumers and farmers.

And given all the scares about salmonella, more and more people today want to know where their food comes from and how it's grown, she said. "When you buy locally, the food is fresher — we picked these yesterday — and when it's fresh it has more nutrients," Bachmann said.

Behind her were stacks of boxes waiting to be picked up by people in her CSA program. Short for community-supported agriculture, CSAs are another way for people to support local farmers.

She and several other farmers in the area offer people "shares" of the vegetables they grow; in her case, they pay $350 a season for 14 weeks of local vegetables.

Bachmann said she has 120 members, her limit, and a waiting list. "There's such a demand for local produce," she said, as the morning light grew brighter and more people streamed into the square.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554 or