David Cole peers down the hood of his white Ford Explorer at the agrarian world he has created in chic Rappahannock County, Va.

"If you want to double-click on any aspect of the farm," he tells his visitor, "let me know and we'll stop."

Whoa. Click click.

It doesn't take long to figure out that this is no ordinary apple-cheeked farmer. In his other life, Cole is a venture capitalist (best known as one of the architects of America Online's phenomenal expansion in the 1990s), but lately he's been on a mission to reinvent the American farm. Cole is convinced that there's a better way to handle one of the most basic of necessities: our food supply. And he's decided to use his high-tech corporate background to make it happen. It's an interesting process to watch.

Think memos to farmhands that go something like this: "Our intensified focus on a finite group of crops will allow for more systematic gathering of data." Translation: Pull the gooseberry bushes, guys; we're sticking in strawberry plants.

Think hounds in electric collars guarding hillside peach trees against interloping deer. Or white leghorns ranging freely, then tucking in at night in a chicken coop on wheels. Up the ramp they climb, like Humvees being loaded into a C-130 Hercules transporter.

"These are our MCUs," says Cole. That's Mobile Chicken Units.

Think Bill Gates and American Gothic rolled into one 50-year-old boomer with rosy cheeks and a graying goatee.

Wade through the high-tech jargon and you find a champion of one rather basic idea. Simply put, Cole believes that food should be organic and grown locally.

This creates a symbiosis between consumer and farmer, he says, makes local farms successful and preserves the countryside from sprawl. Cole's mantra is sustainability, and if companies must produce more than they consume to survive, so must the farm. In Cole's ideal world, communities would get as much of their food as possible from a network of farmers in their own back yard.

For seven years now, he and his spouse and partner have been trying to live in that world. Maggie, Cole's wife of 33 years, doesn't like the limelight and declined to be interviewed. But together, she and her husband have been conducting a grand experiment on their 425-acre Sunnyside Farms. They've poured $20 million into the project, and though they don't have any profit to show for it (Cole expects to break even in 2004), they have made some significant headway. Their fresh, organically raised beef, fruit and vegetables are in high demand. Top area restaurants such as Restaurant Nora and Kincaid's and the Inn at Little Washington are among their regular customers. And their products have a following at places like Whole Foods Markets and the Dupont Circle Farmers Market. The couple's success, Cole believes, is the expression of frustration by consumers with this nation's agriculture industry.

Cole believes U.S. farming has been in ruins for a long time now.

"I knew the system was broken," he says, but it wasn't until he started farming that he discovered the depth of the problem. "I had absolutely no idea how bad it was."

The problem, according to Cole, is the whole U.S. agricultural model: Find regions where things grow well, assemble the harvest in one huge bloc -- grapes and peaches in California, wheat in the Plains, spuds in Idaho -- and ship them to the rest of us. Mass production, storage techniques and climate-controlled shipping keep our bellies full, but, if you listen to Cole, our hearts empty. Now the grapes also come from Chile, the apples from China and New Zealand.

But doesn't all that give us abundant, cheap food?

Nope, says Cole. Add up all the costs and you will see that it is not affordable. Besides, he says, is food that's been smothered in pesticides, gassed and irradiated, and shipped halfway around the world -- is that really food?

A Growing Interest

Cole is sitting at an outdoor table behind his Sunnyside Farm Market, a 19th-century general store in Little Washington that he bought, restored and opened as an outlet for his organic products. In front of him is a Redhaven peach from his fields, and a clear plastic container of some of his fat, tart blackberries, and another of juicy raspberries. The peach is a common variety, but the one you typically get at the store has been picked green and shipped from California, he explains. What you're eating, he says, is closer to Styrofoam. He is joined by his farm manager, Brian Cramer, and Jeff Dozier, an environmental science professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his graduate students Bryan Henson and Tova Callender, interning at Sunnyside. They are eating the blackberries and raspberries as if the fruit were buttered popcorn.

The assembled experts muse over the real cost of our food: Huge taxpayer bailouts to farmers, most of it going to produce just half a dozen crops, much of it exported; environmental damage and depletion; health problems linked to poor diet; a loss of local farmland to development; loss of control as a nation over our food supply.

The reaction to all that has been a growing desire for organic food. And these days its organized proponents, such as Cole, are enjoying a little momentum.

Just last month, after 10 years of debate, the USDA established its organic certification program, which allows producers to affix the label "USDA 100 percent organic" to products, notifying consumers that the food meets strict requirements. Cole is heartened by that. He's also gratified by the proliferation of farmers' markets, which are becoming as common in U.S. communities as they have in European towns. The number in the United States has jumped from 1,755 in 1994 to 3,100 today. In addition, small farmers are finding new markets through Community Supported Agriculture, a system in which subscribers pay growers directly for weekly deliveries of fresh, seasonal produce.

Many of these mom-and-pop farmers are rooted in the hippie culture of the 1960s. This is where Cole parts company. He abhors the notion that to want organic, fresh produce, you must sign on to some greater ideal.

"The way the ideologues sold food was, 'Eat it, because it's good for the planet,' " he says.

Cramer cradles his hand, presenting an imaginary insect-damaged vegetable.

"Get over the fact it's ugly," adds Cole. "Just get over it."

He strokes his goatee in reflection. "That's completely opposed to how we sell our food. It tastes better, it looks great and it's good for you. We are going to spare you the messianic message."

If there is a precedent for what Cole is doing, says Patrick O'Connell, the chef and owner of the Inn at Little Washington, it is in the way that wealthy stockbrokers, physicians and others began boutique wineries in California in the 1960s and '70s, later copied in virtually every state and elevating local wines to world-class standards. "All of America benefits from what's happened to our national wine industry," says O'Connell, "in part because these people threw enormous sums of money at it, but with genuine vision and passion."

It may be the case that Cole is no earth child, but even he can't deny he's a bit of a proselytizer. Besides pouring $20 million into a small plot of land in Virginia, he's also started something called the Sunnyside Institute to help advocate for his cause.

Food for Thought

David Cole has had a longstanding interest in environmental issues, particularly in developing countries, but the journey to Sunnyside started one night in 1995. Back then, Cole was having dinner at a vegetarian restaurant near Seattle when he had to leave the table to take a phone call. He returned to find what he thought was a tofu cube on his plate. Delicious, but not quite what he thought: It was a piece of tender, organically raised beef.

Twenty-year vegetarians like Cole have been known to take to their beds after eating meat, but he awoke full of energy, which he attributed to the purity of the beef. He has been un-vegetarian since. (Humane treatment of animals, however, remains one of his ethics.)

By then, Cole's re{acute}sume{acute} already was one of an obvious overachiever -- he was president of a couple of AOL divisions. The beef must have been like putting nitro in a Ferrari, and the track led to Rappahannock County.

The late John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy, where Cole was a board member, steered the Coles to Sunnyside, 425 acres that had been farmed by the same family for generations but was up for sale. In spite of its chirpy name, it was as moribund as other old apple farms in this part of Virginia.

Hit first by the growth of the apple industry in Washington state, and more recently in China and other countries, apple farmers in the nearby Shenandoah Valley have been pulling out trees, saying it costs them more to produce the fruit than they get for it at local processing plants.

"One of the tragedies of American agriculture," Cole says, "is that you can be smart and hardworking, you can be incredibly inventive, and still fail because of the larger forces at work."

A Sudden Freeze

Cole had a vision for his Sunnyside Institute. It already was set up in a restored building in town, but he had plans for constructing an 11,000-square-foot conference center on the farmland a couple of miles away. Here, he could establish a venue for symposiums, a visitors center, a place to conduct tours of the farm, perhaps even a restaurant with his food.

Then he ran into another force of nature: other Rappahannock County residents.

With its idyllic setting of quaint towns, rolling hills and wooded mountains, Rappahannock County is home to a varied and sometimes uneasy mix of natives, wealthy Washingtonians with weekend places and entrepreneurs like Cole. To the outside world, the county seat of Washington has been made famous by the Inn, established a quarter of a century ago by O'Connell. Even after more than 30 years in the county, O'Connell says he is still counted an outsider.

Cole's application to build the conference center -- later scaled back to 4,000 square feet without the restaurant -- was met with howls of protest from old-timers who complained about the prospect of traffic on the two-lane road between the town and the Coles' farm. Cole said his traffic study showed little affect on the road.

Charles K. "Pete" Estes, chairman of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, says: "I have no objection to what he's doing. I'm sure in his mind and in a lot of people's minds he is trying to do a very good thing." The community opposition, he says, came down to "the choice of location."

But O'Connell says it goes deeper than that. "We have people in the area who would like to put a big glass bell over the county and keep it from ever changing."

One opponent, who requested anonymity, says residents live in fear of the type of sprawl that is encroaching on neighboring counties and are strongly opposed to anything that might weaken Rappahannock's strict development constraints. "He wanted to change the ordinance, and it's the feeling of many people here that if an ordinance is going to be changed, it should be for the public benefit, not for an individual's benefit."

Cole withdrew the plan during a critical public hearing before the board of supervisors. Some townsfolk said he should put the building on land he owns off Route 211, the nearest main road. According to a report of the session, one speaker openly scoffed at Cole's dream. "One person is not going to save agriculture," she said.

Branching Out

That is, of course, what the boundless, beefed-up David Cole is set on doing.

Besides using corporate strategy on farm production, he's applied it to the more conventional business elements: marketing, branding (of products, not cattle) and data collection. Part of the dream is growing corporate entities as well as bok choy, and the Sunnyside Institute is just one of these. He has also spun off several enterprises, including Green Circle Organics to market his line of beef, formed an alliance with other local farmers called Sunnyside Farm Network, and incorporated another company for the sale of products at farmers' markets.

Inn owner O'Connell says, "The typical organic grower is a mom-and-pop operation, underfinanced, overworked, with much more limited opportunity to do the kinds of things [Cole] is doing."

Certainly the farm has the hallmarks of capital, from the neat, rebuilt dry-stack stone walls to elaborate, tiered watering ponds to the hillside orchards covered with thousands of trees, all carefully trellised on wires and fed with drip irrigation.

Varieties of sweet cherry trees cover four acres; peaches, seven acres; heirloom and modern apples, 17 acres. In high summer, they are sprayed a ghostly white with a clay-based organic pesticide; now the fruit has been picked and the leaves have dropped, a reminder of the ebb and flow of the seasons.

Elsewhere, Cramer inspects the new strawberry patch, wedged between the trellises of black raspberry and blackberry. Six rows of strawberry plants, emerging from black plastic mulch, form a striped pattern that leads to a pond a quarter of a mile away. Far away, the land rises to reveal the grids of peach trees, and the hills, in turn, yield to the autumnal tapestry of hardwoods on the mountain ridge above. In its majesty and wealth, the landscape is redolent of the vineyards of the Napa Valley, and perhaps the similarity is no coincidence.

Cole, president of an investment management firm, with homes at the farm, at the Watergate Hotel, and in Palm Beach, Fla., relies on Cramer and others for his farm's daily operation, but he says he likes to work around the place at this time of year, mending fences, caring for the horses, considering the quiet and barren beauty of the season. And reflecting on his dream.

But he also sees Sunnyside as the path through the maze for the rest of us, whose lives are somehow emptier for turning away from nature. We have mistaken quantity for quality, excess for ecstasy. "I think the reason people are eating so much in this country," says Cole, "is that they're trying to fill the big empty space inside of them."

Drawing on his high-tech corporate background, David Cole has turned his 425-acre Virginia farm into a model of organic production.Maggie and David Cole, outside an old schoolhouse on their property, are pursuing the ideal of a food supply that is grown organically on local farms.The main barn on the 425-acre farm, left, and a late lettuce crop, right, amid fields already harvested. The Coles have invested $20 million in the project and have yet to turn a profit, although their organically grown beef, fruits and vegetables are making their way into local restaurants and markets.