When Rolf Graage decided to take up farming four years ago, he knew his 70 acres outside Leesburg wouldn't make money with traditional crops. So Graage started raising fallow deer.

Four years later, the herd numbers 500, and Graage has moved the farm south to Rappahannock County, where he has room to expand.

Raising deer "produces per acre almost three times as much revenue as cattle," Graage said. He sells venison to meat wholesalers and breeding-age does to other would-be fallow deer herders.

Fallow deer, which provide venison found on restaurant menus, are a species of farm-raised domesticated deer long popular in northern Europe. Federal laws prohibit the buying and selling of meat from wild deer.

From buffalo herders to herb cultivators, "boutique farms" specializing in exotic crops are springing up all over Maryland and Virginia, prompted in large part by skyrocketing land prices, high labor costs and rising consumer interest in unusual foods.

"People are looking for ways to raise a lot of something on very little ground," said M. Bruce West, Maryland state agricultural statistician. "If you're the only producer {of an exotic food}, you can make good money."

Graage, for example, was Virginia's only deer farmer when he got started, and now there are two others in the state.

Prince William residents Ted and Grace Shepherd turned to raising swans, quail and pheasants on their former dairy farm in Nokesville more than a decade ago.

"I had two boys and neither of them were interested in dairy farming. When I bought the farm {in 1952}, there were 167 farms in the county, and now I can't count but five," said Ted Shepherd, 72. "Now if I can't do it myself, I'm not going to fool with it."

He stumbled -- literally -- on raising exotic fowl when he found a quail's nest while mowing, and now has nearly 3,000 birds.

Shepherd sells many of the hatchlings to other game farms, and sells mature birds to hunting preserves and hunters. He also sells swans and geese to developers and homeowners' associations that want decorative birds on their lakes.

The same urbanization that has driven out traditional farmers has brought in new consumers who want different kinds of food.

Gourmet sections have become commonplace in area supermarkets, and Arlington meat wholesaler George Mazur said the demand for venison has risen 25 percent each year for the last five.

The federal Economic Research Service reported that domestic production of oriental vegetables -- including bok choy, bean sprouts and several other varieties -- rose from 9,350 tons in 1987 to 24,350 tons last year.

Cathy Greene, an agricultural economist with the service, attributed the rise to "an influx of ethnic groups who want to eat their homeland vegetables and the sophistication of the American consumer. They've traveled more."

The country's growing interest in healthy food also has spurred boutique farming. Most game meats are lower in cholesterol and fat than beef, and growers of fresh herbs and organic vegetables also market their products to the health-conscious.

"There seems to be a real general interest in learning about herbs," said Anne Arundel herb farmer Maria Price, who teaches classes through the Smithsonian Institution.

Price and her husband raise horses, sheep and goats on their 40-acre farm in Severn, but they make their money from herbs and flowers.

Price said she plans to double the size of her one-acre outdoor garden next year.

"We're trying to get it to the point where we can say we're making a living from it. Right now we're not. My husband sells Mercedes," she said.

For some farmers, raising unusual beasts is a labor of love.

Churchville, Md., resident Paul Hines became a buffalo herder after retiring from the Postal Service eight years ago. Now he has a 15-animal herd and sells their meat.

"Buffalo meat is a health food: high protein, low cholesterol," he said.

But his real interest is teaching children about the animals. "It's all worthwhile when I can share it with children. We have open house every Sunday afternoon and 10 to 80 people" come.

Shepherd also welcomes school groups to his bird farm and sponsors demonstrations at the Prince William County fair. This month, he loaned several turkeys -- including a well-loved 7-year-old male named Sam, who struts and gobbles on command -- to local elementary schools.

All the exotic-game farmers said they have learned about their stock by trial and error because so little research has been done on the subject.

Hines quickly found out that he needed strong, high fences for buffalo, the American species of bison. "They look big and clumsy, but they can jump a four-foot fence just like a deer," he said.

For his part, Graage said he has learned that "deer are very flighty animals. Handling them is a real challenge. You have to handle them {at least} once a year to give them their shots."

The field of deer farming is so new that state agricultural specialists often come to Graage's farm to see how it works. "They are always looking for something to keep the family farm alive," he said.