There ought to be rows of fruit trees bending in the breeze and the melodic mooing of the neighbor's cows, a freckle-faced boy polishing an apple on a pocket of his overalls and a local fishing hole for fun on steamy afternoons.
Instead, there is a McDonald's, a Jack-in-the-Box and a Lums, shiny new high-rise apartments and office structures, a gasoline station, at least three shopping strips, a few vandals and loads of new construction that encircle Patrick Dowd's last piece of Americana, as he calls it: his vegetable and fruit stand.
"It's an oasis in the midst of a concrete jungle," said Dowd, a gaunt, ruddy-faced Norman Rockwellesque figure who runs the stand in Alexandria along with his wife, Patricia, and five equally rockwellesque silver tabby and mutt cats. "Places like this are a part of Americana, but they're disappearing."
Wrong. The heyday of the roadside stand, farmer's market and pick-your-own businesses is just beginning, according to several agriculture analysts and recent federal reports. Some are cracking the concrete of the nation's cities and suburbia, and others are holding their ground in the countryside.
Places like Dowd's market are becoming more a part of American business than Americana.
One sure sign of their maturation, for example, is the emergence of the roadside stand consultant. "There was a time you'd never think thee was enough business to support a consultant," one farmer remarked. There is even a Roadside Stand Marketing Association.
Marketing is big. Small farmers new to the business or farmers expanding present operations aren't building chrome and glass markets or roadside outlets to compete with chain stores. Many are antiquing farm implements to make them look old and using aged wood for siding so their places "look farmy," a key attraction for their clientele.
In addition, Maryland researchers are trying to develop strawberries that are easier for pick-your-own consumers to snap off their stems. They are attempting to make the strawberries bigger, with longer stems, able to withstand rainy weather, require less insect and disease sprays and ripen at a certain time. About 75 percent of all strawberries grown on the East Coast are used not in jams and jellies but in pick-your-own operations, one expert said:
The roadside-stand consultants also help make the stands more ethnic by advising the farmers on what vegetables will sell the best in their region. For example, one farmer in Clinton only sells produce such as collard greens, black-eyed peas and okra because a lot of southerners live nearby, while Dowd stocks up on salad greens for the highly paid government-employed professionals in his area, many of whom don't know a lima bean when they see it, he said.
A New Jersey farmer is specializing in growing and marketing Oriental vegetables for his patrons.
And one shouldn't be fooled by the old, rundown, "farmy" appearances of some of the roadside stands and other direct-marketing operations. Many of the direct marketers make pretty good profits because they are able to eliminate the middleman and a lot of labor costs, according to Harold Hoecker, a retired Maryland Extension Service employe and University of Maryland professor who now is a direct-marketing consultant. For example, Dowd has a home in Florida where he and his wife vacation for two months every year. He said he buys his vegetables from farmer friends.
"Roadside markets are very profitable to the consumer and the grower," Hoecker said. Small farmers can double their profits by selling directly to consumers, Hoecker and other agricultural experts said. At the same time, consumers can get fresh produce, sometimes at cheaper prices, and a respite from the refuse and pollution of the city.
Locally, a new farmers market is scheduled to open in Arlington this spring, and the District Extension Service -- yes, the District has "county agents" -- is attempting to hold a farmers market this summer at RFK Stadium or in Anacostia. The business has grown from about a dozen pick-your-own operations, 50 roadside stands and a handful of farmers markets within a 50-mile radius of Washington to about 200 pick-your-owns, 400 roadside markets and at least 15 farmers markets, all within the past 10 years, Hoecker said.
Statistics on direct marketing are scarce, but a recent Agriculture Department study of six states having direct-marketing programs said that 60,750, or about 15 percent, of the 421,600 farmers surveyed sold $259.7 million worth of farm products directly to consumers. Direct sales per farmer averaged $4,275.
In Missouri, total sales from direct marketing ranged from $1,000 to $60,000 per farmer.
The study also reported that in a national survey 60 percent of American households made at least one purchase from direct-market outlets in 1977. Roadside stands were the most popular, followed by pick-your-own operations and farmers markets.
About the same percentage of persons who patronized direct-market outlets in 1977 said they would do so again in 1978, the report said.
"Food quality and saving money were the leading advantages cited by respondents," the report said. "Other advantages cited included ability to select your own, more nutritious, greater variety, oppotunity to make bulk purchases, and those patronizing pick-your-own said it provided a pleasant outing."
Travel inconvenience, distance and traffic were cited as disadvantages by 20 percent of respondents patronizing roadside stands and other direct markets in the country and by 10 percent of those shopping at curbside stands in surburban areas.
"The future in it is very good," said George Butler, who runs a roadside market and pick-your-own operation on his 60-acre farm about two miles from Lakeforest Mall and about a mile from the Montgomery Village housing development. Butler also rents 200 acres from a farmer who sold to developers about 10 years ago for about $3,000 an acre. "As people are forced to move in more urban conditions, we'll see more of" direct marketing, he said.
"Farmers are interested in it like I am because it's a way of living," Butler continued. "It's either that or perish."
Direct farm marketing as it is known today began only about 70 years ago, Hoecker said. Some small farmers entered the field because labor and mechanization became so expensive that they decided to just let consumers pick their own fruit, said Rick Baker, a marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
"It's a way for farmers to make some money," Baker said. "Some farmers who've never been in it are getting into it and some are expanding."
"It began as a supplement to farmers' incomes," Hoecker said. "Now, it's becoming the income." For instance, pick-your-own strawberry farms "in this area almost reached the point of saturation." Direct marketing consists of between 5 percent and 7 percent of farm revenues in the Washington area, Hoecker said.
Butler got into the pick-your-own and roadsidestand business because he was unable to make ends meet in selling his produce wholesale in the early 1950s. Since then, he'd done nothing but direct marketing, he said.
Although he has made his renovated roadside market "look farmy," it also includes conveniences such as soft-drink vending machine, portable restrooms and drinking water from wells.
The business started slowly. "We had a 20-foot by 20-foot shed," Butler said. "We had no refrigeration to start off."
"We didn't grow too fast," Butler continued, stroking one of his dogs lying on the floor of Butler's 130-year-old log-cabin home. "We probably grew more in the last 10 years as the housing boom moved our way. There was more affluence, and we became better known.
"At one time you could count on your hands the numbers of farm markets," Butler said.
It wasn't until the middle 1960s that direct marketing became Butler's sole income. He started with no full-time employes and now he has three. His two sons, agriculture school graduates, are partners. He also hires high school and college students.
Butler said he has held off land speculators who have offered him and neighboring farmers between $2,500 and $4,000 an acre for their land. "The encroachment of housing is what's likely to drive direct marketing out of business," Butler said. "We can't afford to compete."