It's a June morning on the Featherbed Farm outside Waterford, and Joan Broome is out in the heat of it, encouraging her asparagus, hand-watering her sunburst squash.
She relishes every moment, from the planting to the picking to the payoff: displaying and selling her fresh, home-grown produce in Loudoun's farmers markets.
"It's very satisfying, very much of a family," Broome said. "You get almost family feelings for the vendors."
Farmers markets are blossoming in Loudoun, Fauquier and neighboring counties, with about 30 markets within driving range of this swath of the Blue Ridge. The growth of the markets is encouraging to many newcomers -- who now see farming as a viable career option -- and old-timers trying to scrape out a living in an area that is a difficult proving ground for the agriculturally inclined.
"I think a lot of people have realized that you can make money growing and selling produce in Loudoun County," said Broome, who raised two children, sent them to college and, along the way, began nurturing her passion for vegetable growing. "You don't have to go all the way into the city or into the urban parts of Fairfax" to sell, she said.
Loudoun's four farmers markets -- two in the east and two in the west -- attract about 35 growers whose farming operations vary widely in size and staff. About 10 are Loudoun farmers who participate through the Loudoun Valley Home Grown Markets Association, an umbrella group formed about five years ago with help from the county's Department of Economic Development.
Fauquier has seven markets: Archwood Green Barns Farmers and Gardeners Market in The Plains, Virginia Perfection Farm in Delaplane, Hartland Orchard and Stribling Orchard markets in Markham, Linden Vineyards and Orchards in Linden, Williams Peach Manor Orchard in Bealeton and the Town of Warrenton Farmers Market.
Many farmers drive truckloads of fresh produce to one or two markets a week. For others, the rule seems to be: Have trucks, will travel. The selection of markets is a personal choice as well.
"A lot of times it's just whatever's closest," Broome said. "But also the mix of vendors at each market is slightly different. If we have a lot of bakers, we try to spread them out. And sometimes people just like the clientele at one market, and that's where they go. Many of them try all the markets over a few years and then decide what's better for them."
The Loudoun organization has its rules: Except for the occasional string of dried peppers, no crafts are allowed. Farmers must live within 125 miles of Leesburg. About half the growers with stands in Loudoun's markets are from Fredericksburg, and others come from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Produce hawkers have no scorn for the more suburban markets of Leesburg, Cascades and Sterling, where growers pitch their tents in parking lots of strip malls. Markets were attempted in Lovettsville and Purcellville, but "they were not successful enough to grow and stay viable," said Broome, who spends much of her indoor time coordinating the not-for-profit Loudoun Valley Home Grown Markets group.
"We've recognized which side the bread is buttered on," she said. "I think in the more rural parts of Loudoun, most people probably have their own gardens, and people in Cascades and Sterling probably don't."
A lot of vendors put the Sterling market -- Wednesday afternoons in the parking lot of Sterling Plaza -- on their schedules. They like it because it is one of the area's few afternoon markets, so they can pick in the morning and sell vegetables fresh off the stalk or the vine later the same day.
At the Sterling market last week were farmers Adam Cook, 22, proprietor of Creekside Produce in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., and Jim Huyett, owner of Sunnyside Farms in Charles Town, W.Va. Each has a commitment to attend nine or 10 markets weekly in a swath running from Washington to McLean to Leesburg.
The two college-educated guys are like father and son as they swap tent stakes, help each other "load truck" and lend an ear when the going gets rough. But that's not a concern in these days of plenty.
Cook, a senior majoring in agriculture at West Virginia University, said he didn't know whether he could make a go of it as a farmer. The economics concerned him. He wants to have a college degree under his belt, just in case.
The growth of the markets is an encouraging sign.
"I've studied all different kinds of agriculture," said Cook, as he packed the unsold crates of new potatoes, onions and peas for the return trip home, "and it's the only thing I see where you can start off like me and not own a farm and still make money."
CAPTION: Joan Broome, left, and her friend Stacy Ochsman weed garden at Featherbed Farm. Broome coordinates the Loudoun Valley Home Grown Markets Association.