Produce packed in brown lunch bags crowds the back of Steven Copp's van, competing for floor space like hens in a chicken coop. Copp, a farmer from the Shenandoah Valley, is on his way to homes in Northwest Washington, where he delivers the just-picked taste of the country to city folk tired of supermarket cellophane.

Milkmen may have gone the way of soda jerks, but the metropolitan area still has a smattering of farmers who bring eggs, chickens and fresh fruits and vegetables to the doors of customers often established years ago. Copp's route, which he bought from his now-retired uncle, includes children and grandchildren of some of the same families his uncle had serviced since 1932.

Prior to the Civil War, agrarian Americans raised their own food. As cities began to grow, home delivery flourished from the 1870s on up to World War II, according to Wayne Rasmussen, the former historian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Then mechanical refrigeration and large scale production entered American agriculture and it was no longer profitable for farmers to deliver to individual homes, Rasmussen said.

"It's really not profitable, but it's what I've always done. I'm not going to change now," said Landon Dysart of Woodstock, Va., who has been delivering fresh farm goods to Washington households since 1943.

For other farmers, not making a lot of money is tempered by a greater cause: the philosophy that the complexity of the commercial food chain does not best serve the consumer.

"The closer we can bring the farm to the consumer, the better for everybody," said Jim Crawford of New Morning Farms. Crawford, who used to work on Capitol Hill and go to law school at night ("the typical Washington things"), bought a farm in south central Pennsylvania 15 years ago. Beside selling organically grown goods at the farmers market on 18th Street and Columbia Road every Saturday, Crawford has a delivery route that began as a door-to-door service and has blossomed to include stops on almost a dozen street corners in Northwest Washington neighborhoods.

"Food travels an average of 1,300 miles before it gets to you," said Stephan Donner of Natural Beef Farms. "It doesn't make sense when there's food right around you." While Donner and his wife Suzanne sell the beef (which they say has not been grown with antibiotics or growth hormones) raised on their Berryville, Va. farm, the couple also delivers the beef, chicken and organic produce of about a dozen local farmers to about 1,300 local customers. The Donners' business -- which is considerably more elaborate than other farm delivery services -- includes a warehouse in Chantilly equipped with computers and two delivery trucks equipped with cellular phones.

Direct marketing from farm to door means that the goods will most likely be fresher than those that have gone the supermarket route. Copp's truckful of green beans and tomatoes, which he delivered on Thursday, were picked on Wednesday.

Crawford said that most of the produce he sells on Tuesday evenings has been picked that day at noon. "That's how fresh it can be," he said. Crawford also sells some of his produce to wholesalers in the Florida Avenue markets, where he will sometimes see his goods four days later -- as yet unsold. "I consider that old," he said.

Customers are also attracted by the nostalgia of it all. "There's a little bit of the old time feeling for us having things delivered," said Betsi Closter of Annandale, who buys eggs, sausage and chickens from Harold Richman, a Maurertown, Va., farmer. "When we wake up in the morning, the food is on the doorstep," Closter said.

For the farmer, a large attraction of the job is the element of personal interaction, the opportunity to become a part of people's lives.

"We know everyone's life story," said Suzanne Donner. Although Donner does not make the deliveries personally, she talks to customers regularly when they place their orders.

Copp delivers to 250 clients in a two-day period (leaving his Shenandoah Valley farm at 4 a.m. on Thursdays) and he knows what everyone orders, without keeping a record.

On a recent trek through his Spring Valley route, Copp found his clients friendly and eager, as usual, to chat with him, whether it was about sports, vacation plans or family gossip. "I can't be rude," Copp said, "but I can't ask about all their aunts and uncles." It would take time away from his delivery schedule, he said, so he tries to catch up every three or four weeks.

Customers "trust us, they know who we are. They depend on us," said Susan Gallahan of Cherry Hill Farms. The Clinton, Md., farm does not operate a door-to-door delivery service, but every week Gallahan brings fresh produce to 10 government agencies, setting up a produce stand in the agency's recreation association facilities. Gallahan said that customers at the Department of Labor recently sent her ill daughter a bunch of balloons.

Those who deliver farm goods in the 1980s must contend with more than a few changes since the turn of the century. For one, since all the publicity over cholesterol, it's a lot harder to sell as many eggs, said one farmer from Baltimore County, who asked not to be mentioned by name.

For another, they must juggle their delivery schedules with clients who are frequently at work during the day, or who say they will be home, but aren't. "You name it {the situation}, we've had it," said Stephan Donner. Aside from servicing homes in Georgetown ("where the butler accepts delivery") and public housing projects in Southeast, Natural Beef Farms also delivers to offices, apartment buildings and to coolers that residents leave outside their homes.

Then there is the problem of delivering during the summer. "When you have everything {grown}, people are on vacation," said Daryl Huffman, who drives over two hours from Woodstock, Va., to Fairfax and Prince Georges County to service some of his father's original customers.

Farmers nowadays also know that if they are to make any profit, they will probably have to charge more than a conventional supermarket, given their fuel and personal labor costs. This is not the case for all goods, however. Last week, for example, Copp was selling tomatoes for 80 cents a pound (Safeway and Giant are selling them this week for 99 cents) and green beans for 60 cents a pound (Safeway is selling them for $1.29, Giant's are on sale for 59 cents.)

The items of Copp's that are more expensive than the supermarket are "worth it," said Donna Turner, a customer. Aside from the quality, "there are so few things that get delivered anymore. It makes things seem small townish," she said.

Nevertheless, there may a limit to the amount of people who are willing to pay higher prices for nostalgia or fresher goods. "Some people like to go to the grocery store," said Dysart, who said he makes less money each year. "It's air-conditioned."

NATURAL BEEF FARMS' BARBECUE SAUCE (Makes about 2 cups)

1 1/4 cups tomato pure'e

1/2 cup cider vinegar

2 cups worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons apple juice, orange or pineapple sauce

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Salt, hot pepper sauce and cayenne to taste

Combine all ingredients and simmer for 5 minutes. Use to baste chicken or ribs.

JIM CRAWFORD'S CUCUMBER SALAD (8 to 10 servings)

5 medium cucumbers, unpeeled and thinly sliced

1 large onion, thinly sliced

2 green bell peppers, thinly sliced

1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup vegetable oil

Combine all ingredients and refrigerate overnight.

BETSI CLOSTER'S CURRIED TOMATOES (4 servings)

4 medium tomatoes

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened

2 teaspoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon curry powder

Salt to taste

Rinse tomatoes and cut out stem ends. Slice each in half crosswise. If any of halves do not stand straight when placed cut side up, cut a very thin slice out of the bottom. Place well apart on a foil lined baking pan. Stir together remaining ingredients. Top tomatoes with mixture. Bake at 400 degrees just until hot, about 10 minutes.

DONNA TURNER'S ORANGE CHICKEN (4 servings) 1/4 cup flour

Salt and pepper

3-pound frying chicken, cut up

2 tablespoons oil

1/4 cup each chopped onion and green pepper

1 cup orange juice

1/2 cup chili sauce

1 teaspoon dijon mustard

2 tablespoons soy sauce

3 oranges, peeled and sliced

Combine flour and salt and pepper in a bag. Shake chicken pieces in it. Brown chicken in oil in a frying pan. Transfer to a 3-quart casserole. Add onion and green pepper to frying pan and saute' until limp. Stir in orange juice, chili sauce, mustard and soy sauce. Simmer 2 minutes. Pour over chicken, cover and bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Uncover and bake 25 minutes longer. Transfer to platter and decorate with orange slices.

The following delivery operations are willing to take on additional customers:

Jim Crawford of New Morning Farms has a schedule card listing stops he makes in Northwest Washington. Call or write: HCR 71, Box 168B, Hustontown, Pa. 17229. 814-448-3904.

Susan Gallahan of Cherry Hill Farms will deliver produce to offices of 1,000 employes or more. Call or write: 12300 Gallahan Rd., Clinton, Md. 20735. 292-4642.

Harold Richman, who sells chickens, eggs, sausages and produce in Northern Virginia, asks that people write to him (no calls) at Rte. 1, Box 461, Maurertown, Va. 22644.

Natural Beef Farms, 4399-A Henninger Ct., Chantilly, Va. 22021. 703-631-0881. Carries meats and produce.