DOTT, PA. -- The end of another growing season draws nigh and the farmer's mind, given time to wander during the long and tedious drives to city markets, is crowded with excitement about tomorrow.
In his mind's eye, the farmer envisions a new day coming for agriculture and food consumers in the East. He can see regional economies being boosted, rural towns resuscitating and farm families working together again in a partial return to the way it used to be.
The farmer's mind conjures more small farms producing more fresh fruit and vegetables for more people in the great megalopolis. He sees a day when there will be opportunity -- and a need -- for policies aimed at increasing the farm population to help meet local demand.
This is not so visionary for, in fact, the revolution already is occurring in community after community in the region. Many farmers and people who are trying to become farmers understand this.
The throngs of customers who attend the farmers' markets in the metropolitan Washington area, in places like Arlington and Takoma Park and Fairfax, bespeak the interest and demand for locally produced fresh food at prices that can be well below those of the supermarkets.
Many communities and neighborhoods indicate a desire to establish these markets, but the sad truth is that there are not enough growers of fresh produce to meet the needs. The trick lies in persuading more state and federal officials and agricultural academicians to become supportive revolutionaries.
A number of states -- Massachusetts, Texas, Tennessee and California, to name four -- already are well ahead of the pack in creating dozens of state-certified markets, where local farmers are provided places to sell their products.
But there are signs that officials in Maryland and Virginia are beginning to catch the drift. The best example is Maryland, where on the heels of the creation of a successful market in Columbia this year, the state agriculture department has decided to set up five more markets around the state in 1991.
Virginia agricultural officials are being pressured to expand the "HomeGrown" concept that has seen the birth of 11 producer-only farmers' markets in Northern Virginia since 1980.
One of the obstacles to growth, however, is that no one, not even the bean counters at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, knows or has attempted to find out how much economic activity is stimulated by the producer-only markets. The answers are probably astounding.
The farmer's friend and guru, Chip Planck of Loudoun County, a political scientist turned vegetable farmer, has been lobbying Richmond to learn more about this as a foundation for expanding the network of markets around the state.
Planck's tailgate math suggests that the Northern Virginia markets may be generating as much as $2 million annually in agricultural sales that otherwise would not occur without these community-supported outlets. He is urging a formal state study to determine the facts.
In case after case, as Planck notes, the existence of markets puts regional farming possibilities in a new context. The markets expand the season of local production, they increase the variety of things that are grown or attempted by farmers, they increase the types of people and operations involved in agriculture.
Looking around a market such as, say, Takoma Park, the farmer sees a carpenter and a construction worker, farming part time, leaning toward becoming full-time farmers; a naval weapons expert selling honey from his bee and sheep operation; two journalists turned into successful bakers; a college-trained anthropologist making it with flowers and vegetables; a television repairman now an expert full-time grower.
They are able to exist and thrive because of the market. Too small to meet a supermarket chain's volume demands, they do just fine in a community outlet.
On their stands the farmer sees the usual array of tomatoes, melons and sweet corn -- all the traditional standards -- as well as things that used to come from someplace else: Six kinds of hot peppers, purple cauliflower, rapini, daikon radishes, heirloom tomatoes and squash, Japanese turnips, Chinese mustard, French sorrel, kohlrabi, Italian green beans, miniature eggplant. And on and on.
These things all sell and they sell well, in part because of consumer interest in trying something different, in part because of the quality. And it seems, the greater the variety in these markets, the greater the traffic flow.
But the key, as Planck and other visionaries keep insisting, is that the markets succeed and farming opportunities increase because of strict producer-only rules that are in place. That is, if you don't grow it, you can't sell it. As long as hucksters can import products not normally grown in the region or resell someone else's produce, farmer incentive to diversify and compete is stifled.
There is another important, less tangible side to all this, as the farmer has sensed in his trips to the new market at Columbia. Urban customers understand that their patronage contributes to the local economy and that it stimulates regional farming activity. They are enthused by the presence of farmers in their village and they feel a special sort of bonding.
That is why, as the farmer on Thursday makes his final trip of the year to Columbia, he will be feeling a certain sadness. It will be farewell to all these new friends whose names he does not know, but who have made him feel useful in their lives with his produce.
That also is why the farmer is excited about the more figurative tomorrows. As he makes that long trip to Columbia, he likely will be passed by dozens of refrigerated semitrailers hauling lettuce from the West, as happens every Thursday.
The farmer knows, and many of his customers know, that it can't last and probably shouldn't. If nothing else, the high cost of diesel fuel makes long-distance produce cartage unwise and wasteful. It could be the best thing to happen yet to local agriculture.
Ward Sinclair is a former Washington Post agriculture reporter who now farms a Pennsylvania truckpatch.