Supermarkets, look out. There's a boom in direct sales from farmer to consumer as more and more farmers are opening up fields for consumers to pick their own produce.

"At first I had two acres for customers to pick," says Bill Fulton, whose farm is near Troy, Ohio. Now, says Fulton, "I've got 100 acres for customer picking, and I'll have more next year."

Why the big push to buy direct? Ed Watkins, farm economist at Ohio State University, says. "It's primarily a move back to nature, back to really fresh vegetables and fruit . . . price doesn't seem to be the important factor.

Many who want fresh produce but don't want to pick it go to roadside stands out in the country, thinking they'll get a better price, but they probably won't. Most of these stands are competitive with supermarket prices, says Morris Fabian, marketing specialist at Cook college, Rutgers University.

He cites some cases. One supermarket was selling fresh blueberries for 99 cents a basket. A farm stand sold the same blueberries for $1.10. But some other supermarkets were selling them for as much as $1.29.

Usually, you do get a few cents off the supermarket price when you shop at a farm market or roadside stand. But, says Fabian, "you definitely get much freshner, higher-quality produce."

Take corn, for example. The less time you have between picking and eating, the better, because corn deteriorates after it's picked. Often, several days pass between picking and buying when you get corn at a supermarket. To counteract the deterioration, corn is iced, and this detracts from the taste, too.

The same goes for such things as tomatoes and some fruits. Store varieties are usually sprayed with a preservative and are usually not vine or tree ripened.

"Not all roadside stands sell homegrown produce warns farmer Bill Fulton, explaining that "some of them buy from distribution terminals just like the supermarkets.

In this case, you'll probably pay close to the supermarket price. And you may get something that's not as fresh because the roadside stands usually don't have good refrigeration.

The thing to do is look around. See what's being grown near the farm market. Ask the farmer if the produce is his own and when it was picked. Farmers are proud of their own products and will tell you. IF you get a vague answer, you may be getting resale produce.

It's a good idea to take a look at what's available at the supermarket - quality and price - before you head out for the farmer markets. Make a list. Then you can see if there's a difference in freshness and quality - as well as price.

"You absolutely get a price saving," said Ed Watkins, "when you pick your own vegetables and fruit in the fields. "You can save from one-third to one-half on supermarket prices, and you usually get a much freshner, higher-quality product.

"On top of that," says Bill Fulton, "you get outdoors and have some fun with the family."

Because the farmer doesn't have to pick it, grade it store it and ship it - you get quite a saving on the produce.

But if you've never picked a specific fruit or vegetable before, ask the farmer how it's done and what to look for. This is especially important with peaches and apples (you could pick fruit that's not quite ready).

Your county agricultural extension service should have names of farms in your state where you can pick your own produce.

Q: in a recent column you suggested that a reader use heavier oil to cut oil consumption for an older car. What about the PCV system? A clogged PCV can waste a lot of oil and gasoline. It's a little-known item that motorists should have checked.

A: You're right. The PCV (pollution control valve) on most cars is an item that is traditionally overlooked. It's easy for a mechanic to remove the valve mechanism to see if the system is clogged.

A new PCV and hose costs less than $10, plus another $5 to $10 labor. If the valve covers and passages going into the engine need cleaning out, the whole job can cost from $50 to $60. But, once clean, you'll notice saving in gasoline and oil.

Q: I read your column, "New Car Paint Catches Measles." I have a metallic blue car that definitely has the "measles." You said this discoloration was caused by faulty paint put on at the factory. Smog in the air, mixed with raindrops sitting on the flat surfaces, you said, produced etchings or stains in the paint. Well, my car dealer must be smoking those funny cigarettes because he says the coloring come from battery acid spilled on the car when it was shipped. I was told "nothing can be done about it."

A: That's one of the best phony stories I've heard on the famous "measle" cars. Keep pestering the dealer and the manufacturer's regional office. If nothing works, take the dealer to small claims court. Sometimes when they get an order to appear in court, dealers will negotiate. And you can be your own lawyer - with no legal expenses.

Q: We used to have a water softener but were told that a water conditioner is better. What's the difference between a softener and a conditioner? We were told the water would be better to drink because it was purified. Is this true?

A: Often the terms "softener" and "conditioner" are used interchangeably. Sometimes a conditioner will remove other impurities (such as iron) not removed by a softener. In general, softeners and conditioners remove minerals that make your water hard. Hard water makes it more difficult to do laundry and wash the dishes.

As far as making your drinking water better, unless the device you purchased also has some sort of filter that removes chlorine or odd-tasting minerals, there will be little differnce in the taste.

Be aware that some doctors say softened or conditioned water may not be healthy for some people to drink, especially those who must maintain a low salt diet. Salt is used to remove minerals in the softening or conditioning process. Water softeners are better left off the drinking water tap. Put them on the hot water line.

Q: In a recent column you said it was an invasion of privacy for stores to ask the customer's phone number to back up bank credit card sales. I own several small stores and I ask for credit card customers' phone numbers because at least once a month we get a card with an incorrect number on it. We need the phone number to locate the customer to correct the error.

A: The bank card companies say you can enlist the aid of your local bank to trace customers. They say having that many "incorrect" numbers on cards is, strange and may indicate some kind of fraud. Customers can give incorrect phone numbers, so requiring then isn't a foolproof way to check.