Ed Schaefer, dressed in running shoes and khaki shorts, is lying on his back under the kitchen sink, fixing the garbage disposal.
"This is the first time I've had a few minutes," he said, apologizing to a visitor. "The thing broke down last winter and I just haven't been able to get to it."
Later he explained to his 3-year-old son Zachary why he couldn't play catch with him the night before.
"I'm sorry, son," he said. "I had to feed the calf and fix a fense when I got home from work, and by then it was too late."
If farming conjures up images of taciturn, overalled men, rosy-cheeked, pie-baking women, and jolly community get-togethers to husk corn or build barns, take a drive out to the rural reaches of Montgomery County and the Schaefers' 214-acre farm.
Ed and Kathy Schaefer and their two young sons, Tyson and Zachary, look more like suburbanites who spend their time jogging and playing soccer than like the familiar stereotype of a farming family. In fact, Ed Schaefer was about to take a job working on development projects in Honduras when the family decided instead to purchase land and turn to farming. h
Schaefer, who spent summers on a family ranch as a child, was trained as an agricultural economist and wanted a place to practice what he theorized.
A strong supporter of public programs to aid farmers, he spoke last week in support of a proposed agricultural preservation program now being debated by the Montgomery County Council.
The Schaefers, who bought their land near Poolesville in 1976, face the same problems as approximately 600 other farmers in the county: a never ending work load and almost insurmountable debt.
Their house , in the midst of renovation, is perched on a hill at the end of a gravel drive. Behind it are acres of woods, pasture land for 70 cows, strawberry fields and weighing stands for their pick-your-own business, two barns, a vegetable garden and sheds for 40 chickens and three pigs.
"You drive up here and think we're rich," said Schaefer. "But it's all on borrowed money."
The family bought the land for $330,000 from two doctors who did not cultivate it. In addition they bought equipment, paid for renovating their house and one of the barns and for starting a pick-your-own berry business.
"We're about a quarter to a half million dollars in debt," Schaefer said, almost matter-of-factly. "We pay $30,000 a year in interest alone, which was about four times our disposable income last year.
"We gross a lot, but we pay it all out," he added. "Since we're just beginning, everything we make goes back into the farm."
They realize they are sacrificing income now for future gains through increased equity.
"The old saying is that farmers live poor and die rich," he said, laughing.
Farming in Montgomery County has changed drastically since World War II, when more than two-thirds of the county's 316,800 acres was open space.
Investors now own many of the 137,000 acres of agricultural land in Montgomery County. Many farmers rent land from the investors to plant crops and graze cattle.
More than half the commercial farmers in the county must find a second job to help meet expenses, according to Rene Johnson, the county's agricultural coordinator. Schaefer is an agricultural economist with the U.S. General Accounting Office, but off-farm occupations of others range from business to bus driving.
Farms in the county are becoming larger and more specialized due to advances in technology and the relatively higher profit in producing more crops.
One thing hasn't changed since the days when most of the county was rural: "The work never ends," said Kathy Schaefer, a well-tanned blond who grew up in Denver. "We went away over July 4th, and that was the first weekend Ed didn't work since December."
The Schaefers devote most of their efforts to the pick-your-own berry and pumpkin crops. Before buying their farm, the Schaefers farm-shopped for a year. They employ up to seven people at the height of the June strawberry season; one person stays on through the summer. But for most of the year the Schaefers work their land themselves.
"We're just finishing baling hay now," said Ed Schaefer, as he described some of the chores. "Then we'll renovate the strawberries for next year and plant pumpkins. We mend fences through the summer. Oh, and there's always weeding. We're taking care of the cows the whole time -- one mother just got hit by lightning and we're trying to pull the calf through without her."
Schaefer works four days a week at the GAO office in Washington.
"We have no choice on that," he said. "That's a financial necessity."
"I'm lucky in my job, though," he said. "Since it complements the work up here (on the farm), I find I have to do the same reading to keep up with both."
Schaefer conducts broad studies or audits of government farm programs for members of Congress. He says that many GAO findings of nation-wide trends are reflected in the county.
"Farmers traditionally act alone," he said. "But when many farmers do the same things independently, they might be hurting themselves collectively.
"For example, when a few farmers sell their land to developers, they increase pressure on others who want to continue farming," he explained. "That also raises the price of the land for young farmers who want to buy. That (buying) becomes almost impossible."
Schaefer believes that the cost of food in the United States is too low, and that higher prices would help alleviate the farmers' financial burdens.
"I know that's an unpopular opinion," he conceded. "And that no politician is going to come out in favor of higher food prices. Since a farmer won't get any more for his product, we have to work out ways to lower his costs."
Schaefer is the first in the county to apply for a state program aimed at agricultural preservation. The state makes two assessments of his land: its value if it were sold for development and its value if it were left to farming. vThe farmer receives the difference in exchange for a pledge to keep the land in agriculture.
The Schaefers will learn how much they will be paid after this dual assessment is completed, several months from now.
"We want this farm to remain as farmland," Schaefer said, as he looked out at his pastureland at sunset. "It's a love-hate relationship sometimes. It's quiet and serene now, but the work never ends.