Fresh pastries and pasta, newly picked veggies and starter shoots, hand-crafted hats and beeswax candles made their return to Ashland today when the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market opened its tents for the 21st season.

"We're not just farmers and food processors," said Market Manager Mary Ellen DeLuca, recalling a speaker she heard recently at a small farmers' conference. "We're food-culture enthusiasts. I loved that because that's how I feel. We're just excited about being localvores and getting the best that's offered right here."

Forty vendors came for opening day, but numbers will easily be up around 100 during the peak season, she said. The association has 20 new paid members already this year, she said.

Gina and Dave Heckley, who have come rain or shine for the last eight years, were among the earliest shoppers, chatting with familiar vendors and trying out their new products.

"We come right at the beginning," Gina Heckley said. "That's the key, because you get all the best stuff."

— — Ashland residents Dakota Otto, left, and Anna Cassilly shop for vegetables this morning at the Growers Market located in the parking lot of the Ashland Armory.

They bought agave berry turnovers and a special chocolate raspberry turnover made by Cathy Pennington for last weekend's chocolate festival.

Pennington said the first day of the market is perfect for catching up with old friends.

"We all think we're going to see each other over the winter, but we never do, so we have so much to discuss," she said.

She got to know the Heckleys at the Tuesday markets, and she will be making her signature pastries for their daughter's wedding this summer.

A few booths down the line, Ruthe Woudenberg got tips on making chocolate while chatting with coffee vendor Paul Gilbertson, who built what he calls an "infinite rolling pin" that turns cocoa beans into chocolate.

"It's a fun place to connect," Woudenberg said. "It's really important that local people know how to grow food so we can sustain our community."

While many of the vendors attend all the grower's markets around the Valley, Gilbertson said, Ashland has more of a community feel.

"There's a lot more socializing," he said. It's the only place where you really see people hugging."

Because of that family atmosphere, Ashland would be a prime location for a Sunday market, he said, even though many of the vendors already participate in the Grants Pass Saturday market.

"A weekend Ashland market would be the coolest thing on the planet," he said. "I'd love it. I'd work a lot harder."

The market is open from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the Ashland Armory.

Special events planned for the upcoming season include the spring planting show over Memorial Day weekend, kid's day during the second week of July and the annual tomato taste-off in September.

— — Laurie Hultquist of Fry — Family Farm, left, Talks with customers while they shop for

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227.