It was a little hard to see how Phil Miller could love what he was doing.
He stood there sweating under the sun in the wide field, arguing like a madcap huckster over the price his friend and competitor, Rod Parker, would have to pay for yellow squash.
Parker belittled the squash, even though he wanted it for his own customers. Then he went over to the sea of green beans, picked a few and praised them to the skies. He plucked off a ripe cucumber and ate it like an apple. More praise, but flattery got him nowhere.
They settled on a squash price that Parker didn't like, and Miller stayed out there for hours more, until after dark, picking basket after basket of squash and getting it ready for someone's dinner table in Washington.
When the squash was picked, Parker, who used to fly Navy jets, came along in his rickety farm truck and took away the load. By then it was pushing 9 p.m. and Miller called it a day. He went home for supper, still loving every minute of a typical day.
What you have in Phil Miller is a farmer enamored of his work. He's 28, working Prince George's County land near Clinton that's been in his family more than a century. Like a goodly number of other local farmers, he is beating the odds that say you can't farm full time for profit with small holdings on the fringe of the big city.
The conventional wisdom, given the vagaries of marketing and eastern weather, is that vegetables on small acreages don't pay. But Miller and others -- including Rod Parker, who, with his retired admiral father, E.A. Parker, may be the biggest of the small-time operators in these parts -- are making it in produce with relatively small farming acreages.
They do it with pick-your-own farms (PYO in the parlance). They grow the fruits and vegetables. Customers come out and pick them fresh, paying prices equal to or less than supermarkets charge. The farmer saves on time, labor, fuel and equipment costs by letting the consumer do the work. Produce not picked by do-it-yourselfers is harvested and sold at the growing number of farmers' markets in the Washington area or to stores.
"There has been a big surge of PYOs here in the last five years," said Dick Biggs, an extension agent in Montgomery County. "PYO is intensely planted farming and that helps around here. You don't need 100 acres or have to be a millionaire to make some money from farming."
He continued, "The emergence of the farmers' markets in the metropolitan area has been a help to farmers because, when you consider it, there are thousands of people here dying for fresh vegetables. Consumers more and more seem to notice there is a difference between the fresh product and what they commonly get in the stores, brought here from long distances."
Farmer Miller began four years ago, carving out 20 acres from the family spread and planting them in basic vegetables. They sold like crazy. The second year he went to 40 acres. More success. Last year he put in 100 acres; this year more than 150 acres. Counting double and triple cropping (replanting when a variety is depleted), Miller will be farming close to 300 acres.
This, however, is not just farming. Phil Miller sees it in broader terms. He wants to help people eat better and understand the food chain, observe the farmer at work and comprehend his problems, appreciate the earth. He goes about this with great zest.
"Produce has had a bad name and it's time to straighten it out," he said. "I guarantee everything I sell. And I'm tickled to death when people call and comment on what they've picked here. Makes you feel you've done something decent. That's what it's all about. It's killing my social life, all this time I put in it, but I love it. Love fooling with vegetables and people."
The Parkers, just down Piscataway Road from the Miller place; W. A. Gallahan III and his sons, in the same neighborhood; George Butler Jr. and his sons, and young Benoni Allnutt in upper Montgomery County say the same thing. Their PYO farms are among the more popular of several dozen in the area.
Gallahan, inheriting the mantle from his now-retired father, began with strawberries 25 years ago, one of the first PYO operations in Prince George's. Success with berries pushed him into vegetables and now he and sons Danny and Mike raise about 60 acres of PYO as part of their larger general farm, with its tobacco emphasis.
"It's either this or real big farming," Gallahan said, "because there's no way you can make it hauling produce to market yourself. You're completely at the mercy of the brokers and the wholesalers. With the PYO, we concentrate and try to make as much as we can per acre."
The biggest PYO farm in Maryland is run by the Parkers -- E.A. (the admiral), sons Rod (the jet pilot) and Chris (ex-accountant) -- who began in 1975 and quickly expanded to about 300 acres of fruit and vegetables at two locations in lower Prince George's.
"The county agent recommended that we start with 10 acres," Rod Parker said. "We didn't envision the growth that we would have. It has been so successful that this year we had 50 acres in green beans and another 30 in lima beans alone."
Similar success stories are heard elsewhere, and these PYO entrepreneurs keep jostling to come up with some new and appealing attraction that will get consumers to their fields.
Benoni Allnutt is experimenting with honeydew melons, which are scarce in the area. The Gallahans have just put in a stand of blueberries, which they expect to be popular and lucrative. The Butlers provide recipe folders to customers, and their pumpkin-harvest extravaganza, with educational displays, a pumpkin and an apple for every child, draws hundreds in the fall.
There is something more to PYO than attractive prices and fresh produce, the Parkers have found. A chance to spend time in a field is for some customers a journey back to earlier, simpler days. Many, particularly urban blacks with rural southern backgrounds, flock to the farms and comment on the rush of nostalgia they feel.
And even tourists take in PYO. Rod Parker once found someone's "things-to-do-in Washington" list in a field. It put a PYO farm visit up there with seeing the Capitol and the Washington Monument.