In the late afternoon, Maryland state Sen. James Clark Jr. is a solitary figure on his red Toro tractor, tilling the soil of his farm near Clarksville.

The 67-year-old Clark, whose career has spanned nearly three decades, is a more familiar sight in a legislative committee room. But, he points out with a drawl, "I was a farmer long before I was in politics."

After 28 years of plowing legislation through the Maryland Senate, where he served four years as president before being replaced by a younger member of the Senate in a shake-up, Clark is retiring. Instead of raising votes, he says, it's time to concentrate on growing beans and silver corn.

In many ways, Clark has come full circle, moving from the country to the city and back to the country again. Starting in 1958 as an unpaid member of the House of Delegates, he watched the legislature grow in sophistication and higher pay.

During his tenure, the state went through a number of upheavals, including the conviction and resignation of former governor Marvin Mandel and the recent savings and loan crisis. It has been a time of dramatic growth in the outer suburban areas of Prince George's, Charles and upper Montgomery counties and especially Clark's home, Howard County.

Clark's district is split, 45 percent in Montgomery and 55 percent in Howard.

He has made his mark on issues of interest to his district, among them farm land and open space preservation legislation and pension reform.

His agricultural land preservation bill, designed to help state farmers resist pressure to sell to developers, was passed in 1977. It authorized the state to buy farmers' development rights for up to 25 years; farmers can purchase the rights back from the state.

As Howard began to urbanize, Clark's focus turned to curbing what he described as the "ill effects of modernization." He sponsored bills to ban promotional games, raise penalties for drug pushers and lower penalties for marijuana users.

He was also among the first to push for a federal no-deficit-spending amendment making it unconstitutional for Congress to authorize a budget deficit. Because he considers the deficit issue his "pet project," Clark said he will continue to travel across the United States petitioning state officials to support the concept of a national balanced budget.

"We need discipline to require Congress to live within its revenue," Clark said, "because deficits bring irreprable harm to the people.

The beginning of the end of Clark's political career was a fight over redistricting in 1982, and he was ousted as Senate president that year.

In what he called a "dirty deal" engineered by Gov. Harry Hughes, the booming new town of Columbia, which Clark represented, was split into two senatorial districts.

Clark's attempts to amend the governor's plan and reunite Columbia in a single district had failed when the Prince George's County delegation filibustered for a week and defeated Clark's amendment. Prince George's stood to gain in power once the district was split.

After Clark lost his edge in the Senate, he was replaced as president by Baltimore County labor lawyer Melvin A. Steinberg.

During Clark's last years as head of the Senate, "the floor operations may have seemed a bit chaotic" to Senate members, said Montgomery Republican Sen. Howard A. Denis. "People began to feel there was a loss of decorum on the floor," he said, and sessions seemed prolonged by Clark's "slow-paced style."

"Veterans of the legislature felt uncomfortable with Clark's permissiveness," Denis said. " . . . Smoking, drinking coffee and applause from the floor soon ended after" Steinberg took over, he added.

Clark says that the time has come "to make room for someone else" in the Senate seat.

He has only one place to go, he said: back to the farm, where he raises cows and vegetables.

"Farming teaches you a lot of things -- like patience," Clark said, poking his finger in the dirt. "A farmer suffers with crops and animals the same way parents suffer with their children."

There's a lot of steel behind that laid-back attitude," said Denis, who met Clark while working as a staff aide on the House floor during the late 1960s. "He's a man with an amazing ability to remain calm."