Through the sultry greenhouse air flows the lulling sound of water. Pumped from deep in the ground, livened with minerals and fertilizer, it sluices down long tables, giving rise to a rich array of crops: cucumbers, dill, summer savory, lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Chives grow luxuriant and spill off their tables. Basil, emerald in this light, fills the air with its essence.

The scene is as magical as the method that makes it. This is a hydroponic greenhouse, a place where plants draw their substance from nutrient-rich water, not soil. Outside the air has a sharp chill, and the sun rides low across a late autumn sky, here on Virginia's Northern Neck some 25 miles east of Fredericksburg. But inside, Stephen Raley, grower of this lush scene, has turned the seasons on their axis, harvesting his cash crops in the barren midst of winter. It is then that his competition withers and dies. "This may sound strange, but we pray for frost."

Growing hydroponically, no matter the season, is no field of plenty. The cost of a truckload of Sunbelt produce can still more or less match that of a local crop, a fact that will not change between now and the next oil embargo. Hydroponics, intensive in yield, is likewise in cost and anguish. Raley pays 32 cents for a cucumber seed, a dollar a pound for fertilizer. Propane gas to heat his greenhouses costs $1,000 a week at the coldest time of year. Five years ago there were about a dozen hydroponic growers in Maryland. Today there are three. As for Virginia growers, Virginia Polytechnic Institute recently did a study of them and concluded that they were clearing, on the average, 75 cents an hour for their trouble.

Raley is in that boat. He rides a desk full time at the Census Bureau as a $31,000-a-year statistician. His desk backs up on a well-trafficked corridor, and the tile is peeling off the floor. The feeling is institutional, cramped. "I work in a bay with five other people." A partition blocks his view out the window. He has been there 17 years. "The biggest mistake I ever made was going to work for the government." He would like to quit and grow full time. But he can't -- not yet.

Last year, Raley merely broke even. Forty thousand dollars went out, forty thousand came in. That, he guesses, was with his four greenhouses producing at 50-percent capacity. "The big secret to this is management," says Raley. It is knowing how to grow what and when. It is finding the right combinations of fertilizer, minerals, heat, light and humidity. Hydroponics, he says, is high-stakes agriculture: bountiful, tasty yields, disease that can sweep a greenhouse like prairie fire, markets that can vanish as fast as a desert mirage. Steve Raley thinks that soon he will fathom this science. In fact, he must. "If we don't make it this year...," he says, his voice suddenly leaden. "We've got to learn this and get it right." When they do, he says, he and his wife Pat will produce twice as much at the same cost. They will clear $40,000 a year. He can quit his job.

Steve and Pat Raley currently grow an array of herbs and vegetables that reach the tables of Washington's finest restaurants. They grow tomatoes in March that taste like August's best: blood-red, succulent, summery. The chives are sharp, the sorrel tart and the cucumbers light yet certain. Raley's green beans, picked young and slender, save their snap for White House dinners. "That's our real door-opener." The basil, zesty, pungent, now brings a premium in New York. That's the cash crop. "If we didn't have the basil we might as well close the doors."

Such claim to fame does not overly impress Raley, an open, amiable sort with grime on his trousers and dirt in his fingernails. He is no gallivanting gourmet, only dedicated, it seems, to what he does and why he does it. "This," he says, "is a way to be with my family." It is also a way, he hopes, to be done with the Census Bureau, to spice his life with some meaning and a measure of self-sufficiency.

"Steve is an idealist," says Pat Raley. "He's naive," says his wholesaler, Dave Yevzeroff. Raley smiles knowingly at both characterizations. "I try not to let my dreams get in the way of reason."

For the dream in its present form to live, Raley rises daily at 3:30 a.m. to troubleshoot the greenhouses before driving north to Washington to deliver his produce at the wholesale market off New York Avenue. Then he heads to the Census Bureau in Suitland, arriving by 7. He is off work at 3:30 p.m. and home by 4:45 or 5 -- back in the greenhouses "dealing with whatever minor catastrophe has come up."

Added to this soul-numbing schedule is a brood of six children aged 3 to 15 -- plenty of bills, plenty of farm labor -- and a wife who shares her husband's values, a woman, he says, "who worries a lot more how she looks on the inside than on the outside." The chemistry, in sum, has yielded a cornucopia of not only food but debt. Raley's four greenhouses, built mostly with his and Pat's labor, cost about $65,000. "Money for us right now is a tight commodity," admits Raley, who does his share of bartering: firewood for dentistry, eggs for transportation of one child to Cub Scouts. "I better sell a lot of basil this year or I'm going to be in trouble."

The Raleys bought the farm -- $78,000 and 30 acres worth -- in 1976 with the idea of growing blueberries for a living.

But that was really a pre-text. They were in retreat from life in suburbia, a two-car, two-income existence in Waldorf, Md., hollow with broken homes, neglected children and neighbors who were in fact strangers. "There was nothing there that the family could create for the children," says Pat. "We lived in a subdivision." She utters the word as though it were a synonym for purgatory. "We felt we had to move to a more rural place to live the kind of life we wanted."

Like a Steinbeckian refugee, Raley loaded family, furniture and pets into an old Navy surplus truck and rambled south. It was December when they arrived, fearful of the decision they had made, wondering what to do next. "The farm had a lot of pines, so we cut down a few and sold them as Christmas trees," he said. "Two dollars apiece."

After the Christmas trees gave out, Raley jumped back into the surplus truck, drove to North Carolina and picked up 3,000 blueberry plants. Back on the farm the weather grew cold. Raley buried the blueberries in a mountain of sawdust, mixing up the 12 varieties in the process. The mountain then froze. The blueberries survived, and in the spring he planted every one of them by hand.

Blueberries yield in an exponential pattern, starting off slow, building to a bountiful peak around their fourth year. In the fourth year the Raleys' blueberry bushes bloomed full under a season of withering sun and cloudless skies. Deer came along and ate what little fruit ultimately emerged in that year of drought. Wells went dry all over the Northern Neck, and so did the Raleys' blueberries.At the end of that rainless summer the blueberry bushes died.

Where once those bushes stood there now rise four hydroponic greenhouses, lucid, elongate structures designed to catch the sun and burgeon not only with vegetation but the grower's enthusiasm as well. "I did all the wiring myself. See these lead pipes? I got them out of a junkyard... This is thyme, marjoram, oregano, sage and summer savory. You wouldn't believe how many plants you can grow in one of these flats."

The greenhouse, here in the bright light of late morning, is a sanctuary, a place of communion. "This is a special kind of lettuce," says Raley, not breaking stride or cadence as he walks down long tables of green peeking through black plastic. "The seeds come from the Netherlands. It's like Boston lettuce but a little denser... There's nothing artificial here, nothing synthetic. This is artesian well water... People are afraid of hydroponics; they think there are a lot of chemicals involved. We use fertilizer and trace elements. There are no herbicides; that's what really hurts people."

As Raley's stream of consciousness flows from one greenhouse to the next -- from sorrel, chives and green beans to a houseful of sweet basil -- his wife follows, interjecting occasional comments, subtle yet pungent: "It's amazing to think that this is all ours."

"At least until the bank's out here auctioning it off."

Against her husband's bountiful vision, Pat Raley's eye is keen. She studies the leaves of herb seedlings for signs of ill health and scrupulously picks dead leaves off a basil plant or two, releasing the essence into the air. "We balance each other," she will later say of her relationship with her husband. "One day Steve's really down and I'm up. The next day he's on cloud nine and I'm devastated because a couple bills have come in."

Once Pat Raley was a nurse, but now she says with a laugh, "I have my own pediatric ward right here." This switch from career to home does not bother Pat because, as she puts it: "I may be home, but I'm never alone."

The Raleys got into hydroponics one day after the county agent came over in the wake of the blueberry debacle and told them not much else would grow in their sandy soil. What sold Raley on the method was that it was intensive in time, yield and labor. A 35-by-130-foot greenhouse could produce 1,000 pounds of tomatoes a week at its peak. Instead of those tomatoes ripening in 10 weeks -- as they would in soil -- they were ready in seven. Most important, hydroponic growing was not laden with such costly items as tractors, plows, discs, harvesters and balers. Its principal tools were hands, a fact that caused Raley to take an appreciative look at his sizable family. His children save him about $100 a week in labor costs.

Pat returns to the house to make lunch, and Raley moves outside into the sun to amend the design of a vent on two of the greenhouses. Wielding a hammer, he uses plastic, old scraps of wood, rusty nails -- simple elements to solve a larger problem. As Raley works, his thoughts, like his materials, seem disparate, makeshift, yet coherent. He talks about gas and the threat of the next oil embargo, wind and his search for a good windmill builder, and the sun and how, sadly, it won't do for nighttime greenhouse heat.

Such musings seem to revolve around a single core idea, one to which they reorient now and again. "Mentally I've had a lot of trouble up there lately." Up there is the Census Bureau, where Raley feels he has been pigeonholed for his occasional outspokenness on how things should be run. "I'm a GS-12. I sit next to a GS-6 file clerk. We do exactly the same work." He has not been promoted in a decade. "That doesn't do much for your ego." He pauses, studies the hammer in his hand and the task before him: "This does."

Raley is proud of his ability to work with his hands, an ability seemingly acknowledged by his fellow workers. Often they approach him asking how to build or fix something. As for Census Bureau problems, says Raley, shaking his head sadly: "They never ask me about that."

It is Sunday afternoon and time to pick basil. "Okay, come on now, we need 40 boxes. Let's hurry." Raley speaks to his work force -- his three oldest children -- as if they are peers. He coaxes and cajoles, inflecting voice and mood depending on whom he addresses. Stefani, 15 and the oldest, says her father is "complex"; Matthew, 10, "a dreamer"; and Jennifer, 9, "ambitious." Though his approach to each seems appropriately specific, he meets, nonetheless, with a general begrudging response. Matthew takes a bag of sorrel to the scale and reports back with an inflated figure that would greatly accelerate the harvest. Jennifer, sent to get two plastic bags, disappears for 10 minutes. Matthew wants to go inside and watch TV.

As the harvest proceeds, it seems random, uneconomic. Measured against this are the needs and aspirations of the children. "I think I want to be a graphic artist," says Stefani.

"I want to be a veterinarian," says Jennifer. "That's a lot of schooling."

Raley, in the narrowest sense, is far from rich. Asked if he fears the cost of raising children in this society, he replies in a general sense: "We're not interested in material satisfaction. We can always cut back." Furthermore, he adds: "My father worked his way through college and so did I. Why shouldn't they?"

His thoughts, staunch, old-fashioned, also seem defensive -- prey to economic reality and the idea that maybe his children do not share his dream.

There are groans and grimaces about the work. None of the children seems to like the taste of what their father produces. "Sorrel tastes like vinegar..." As for the work, "It is boring."

"What would you rather do?"

"I like to climb trees," says Jennifer.

Matthew says he likes to fish, something he can do at the far end of the property.

"I think they're too young to really know what it's like out there," says Raley. "They've never really known anything else besides this. They've never known what it's like not to have their mother at home."

The only one with perhaps a true frame of reference is the oldest, Stefani; she is old enough to recall life in Waldorf. "I like to read a lot," she says. "Watership Down, the Tolkien books, those were great." Asked to compare her former and present lives, she replies: "We used to live in a subdivision. That was boring. We came down here, and I said, 'Where are all the people? I can't be friends with just trees.' But now I am. Most of my time I spend walking in the woods."

As the afternoon lengthens and the harvest grows, Raley talks deeper into the subject of not only raising plants but children as well. For him there is a parallel. "You're locked into the environment," he says. "It is a system based on compatability," on balance and compromise. Some of his best hydroponic discoveries have occurred by accident; so, too, with the children. "There's a lot of trial and error in this." The end product is learning, knowledge of herbs, of off-spring.

His unfolding thoughts seem to sharpen the sense of contradiction about his life, the rigors of the search for balance and compromise. He, like any man, has children who need to be clothed, children who need to climb trees, children with dreams, children who may one day be his Social Security. He, like most men, seeks work that brings not only money but happiness. What emerges is the fact of the fixed, complex course of Raley's life. He is 41, a man with six kids, much debt and undisguised antipathy toward his job in the paper world of the bureaucracy. It is a place "where people fake it... where people operate on fear."

"Yes," he confides, "this [hydroponic farming] has given me back my dignity," and yes, he admits, "I'm a worrier." He sees out there the whimsical marketplace, restaurants that suddenly eschewed his lettuce in favor of watercress, that stopped buying his chicory because the leaves lacked a rusty reddish tinge that diners seemed to find esthetically appropriate. Such shifts can always happen again. If he is lucky he will be ready with a greenhouse full of an herb that city palates suddenly yearn for and no one else can supply. It is a situation full of guesswork and risk. It is a situation that causes Raley to conclude wearily: "I need them a lot more than they need me." He, the country grower, needs the city, the place of wealth and patronage. He needs the contradiction.

On the three days a week that Raley delivers his produce he climbs into an aging delivery van packed and aromatic with the fruits of his labor. He drives up U.S. 301 in the morning dark, crossing the breadth of the Potomac, pressing on up a highway lined with rundown motels, gas stations, and cut-rate liquor stores, past the truck stops, car dealers and neon diners that light the way and guide the spirit.

This is a trip that Raley finds "restful," despite the fact that on two recent trips he had transmission trouble and had to pull over and tinker. He seems to take pride in the fact that his van, like the lead pipes of his greenhouse tables, came out of a junkyard; that he built, wired and plumbed the greenhouses virtually by himself. To him these are trappings of success.

If they, too, tend to imply the patch-work nature of Raley's life, then perhaps his arrival at the wholesale vegetable market off of New York Avenue confirms it. In the first light of dawn the market is dense with trucks; a sea of semis wheezing, groaning, disgorging their cornucopia of transcontinental produce. Into this harbor full of freighters sails Raley like a wind-tossed ketch bearing his fractional, Oriental cargo that he has brought to trade. Here he finds and makes his connection.

That connection is a man named Dave Yevzeroff, a produce wholesaler, a Raley alter ego who guides the crops to their ultimate niches in the marketplace -- his clients: "Some of your finer restaurants, embassies, hotels and a few private individuals." Who then exactly are his clients? "This is a tough business. If I tell you who my customers are, my competitors will be after them tomorrow. I'll tell you who my customers are. Of the top 10 restaurants in Washingtonian magazine we service about 60 percent of them."

Near the top of that list is a restaurant called Cantina d'Italia, and manager Jereldian Bryant exults at the mention of Raley's sweet basil. "This year it's very good. It's strong, the leaves are large and very green -- beautiful. We use it in pesto and a lot of different sauces. You name it, we take it and spin it into gold.We use 50 cases [about 175 pounds] a week."

In the early morning chill Dave Yevzeroff, down-vested, coffee-drinking and ever moving between the two phones on his desk, has little time for talk. It is the heat of the day for him in a business that goes to the swift and discerning. "This is about the only business where if you don't sell your inventory in three to five days you throw it away," says Yevzeroff. "It's gotten a lot more sophisticated [in recent years]. You're always trying to bring stuff in no one else has and look for a market to put it in."

Yevzeroff says that on occasion he has had to "throw away" some of Raley's produce as it went unbought, but in Raley he also saw a "superior, dedicated individual. One thing really appealed to us with Steve. He has a superior product, and he cares about it." Accordingly, Yevzeroff has tried to run interference in the marketplace for Raley, telling him what to grow, giving him seeds to experiment with, and on one occasion lending him some money.(Neither man will say how much.) For his part, Raley unequivocally credits Yevzeroff with being his vital link to the marketplace.

Indeed. The bustle of the market only hardens the feeling of Steve Raley as a small grower out there in the midst of winter with his debts and his dreams: a man much in need of a friendly wholesaler. Into this market he brings, three times a week, his hand-picked herbs and vegetables in their unmarked cardboard boxes, soon to be cast adrift on a sea of Sugar Sweet Asparagus, Mountain Grown Pennsylvania Potatoes and Florida East Coast Peppers. Here too you will find 50-pound bags of onions the size of baseballs, and crates of Stately California Cauliflower that just flew coast to coast. There are crates of tomatoes here (Ziggy's finest) and Gold Rim Green Peppers and Sun Spiced Russet Potatoes. On boxes of Lulu Pomegranates sit more boxes: Coast King California Brussels Sprouts sprouting between cases of Airview Spinach and Blue Baby Tomatoes. The artichokes here are so big they seem to burst right out of their boxes. Against this abundance, Yevzeroff speaks quietly, efficiently into the phone -- all the time ordering more: "What's tomorrow? Thursday... give me 50... How about 36 white grapefruit...What kind of price?... What'd you say? Indian River or Interior?... No, no... See if he can do better, say by a quarter... 30 cases... I need the quarter if I can get it... In California... What size?... You've got four fives or five fives. Do you?... They showing any color?... Give me 35 fives... Got any white radishes?... Okay... What else?... Give me 10 California celery hearts... What are red onions?... Give me 10... You got pinkums?... Give me 10 more cases of pinkums... It's hydroponic. It doesn't hold... If I had it before I don't want it again... What else? He expecting any asparagus tonight or tomorrow?... If he does I'll take 50 cases... Yeah, okay... Any 88s... Number one Sunkist Oranges... Huh... Thanks Bert. Bye-bye."

He hangs up the phone and is asked how the recession has affected his business. He thinks a moment. Not at all really, replies Yevzeroff, a man in the habit of flying in raspberries from Chile and beans from Senegal in the dead of winter. Washington's atypical. There is unusual "market acceptance" here. "This market will accept raspberries in winter even when the price is exorbitant." The reason, he says, is that this is a city of lawyers, lobbyists, contractors and consultants-people not always in the habit of paying for their own meals. "Washington," says Yevzeroff, "is a big expense account town."

"There's conflict inside me all the time," says Steve Raley. "I have this moralistic attitude that it's not right that some people can continue to afford this [his produce] at the expense of others." But then, too, the conflict needs killing, Raley needs to survive. He adds: "If people are willing to pay the price for this stuff I'll keep growing it."

Lunch is a plateful of sorrel accented with chives and a leaf or two of basil. Slices of tomato and cucumber ring the plate. Homemade scones and cheese anchor the meal.Tea washes it down. It is right for midday, subtle enough to mark the pause, solid enough to last through an afternoon of work.

Steve Raley gets up from the table and steps outside into the bright winter afternoon. He insists that before I leave he show me the place. We walk through fields where the blueberries thrived and died. Now, only a handful of bushes remain, their leaves a vibrant red with the season. "I planted every one of these bushes by hand. Kind of makes you sick to look at this field now."

Deeper through the fields, on into the woods, there is a beaver pond. Raley relates how his children come out here and sit quietly for hours hoping to see a beaver. He turns away from the pond, heading back to the house, and pauses to look at a fresh deer track underfoot. "There are deer all through these woods. I don't like killing animals but we could use the meat. Food's gotten so expensive."

A word that tends to creep into Raley's conversation is "fear," and now, here, in the preserve of the forest, it recurs. "The kids have a place here where they can go without any fear. A lot of the people I work with in the city are afraid to let their kids go out at night."

For Raley, fear right now is the deepening recession measured against the commitment he has made, not only in money but spirit as well. While he lavishes propane-generated heat on his herbs, Raley warms his house with wood. "Sometimes when I'm emptying the ashes out of the wood stove," says Pat, "I think about how my parents had a furnace. I wonder if we're going backwards." But then she adds, "I have this feeling that we're sort of pioneers. Maybe that's just my romanticism about our existence here. But we do have so many options here. If something doesn't work out, then you try another."

The blueberries didn't work out, so the Raleys tried hydroponic greenhouses. And that is where Raley now heads, drawn perhaps because this is the place he needs to be. Inside the air is warm, fecund. Immediately Raley's thoughts are lost in the biotic tangle before him, a collage of cucumbers, sorrel, beans and chives. The beans and the cucumbers are fading with the approach of the winter solstice, but the chives and sorrel, less light-dependent, are picking up the slack. Offering hope. Raley is asked how it feels to work in a greenhouse, surrounded by all this growth. The question intrudes on his thoughts, startling him for a moment. Then he smiles, savoring it. "It's so quiet, so peaceful in here. Every once in a while you come to your senses and say, 'I wonder if the world has stopped.'"