The first recommended stop on Loudoun County's fall farm tour this weekend was not a farm at all. It was a museum.
The Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum in Sterling narrates 10 generations of agricultural history in what is now Washington's fastest-growing suburb, with the help of grainy photographs and, occasionally, oral histories. Kenneth Lowery, 87, was on hand Saturday to talk about the days when Loudoun and the Shenandoah Valley were the apple capital of the country.
Lowery, former manager of Hill High Orchard in Round Hill, showed squirming children and their parents how he used to sort apples by size and pack them into bushel baskets. He explained what life was like on the 750-acre farm until it was sold to developers in 1987 and turned into golf courses and houses.
"The young people growing up here now ought to know what they've replaced," Lowery said.
While images of the farms of Loudoun's past hang on the walls, many farms of the present are surviving because they are getting into the museum business in their own way. They market to incoming suburbanites as paying visitors and take special notice of the new industry's most enthusiastic consumer: children.
After a week and a half of gray skies and rain, thousands of area families got outside this weekend and visited farms in such places as Bryantown and Germantown to pick pumpkins, stuff scarecrows and launch pumpkins or ears of corn into the sky. An organized self-guided tour in Frederick County was expected to draw 20,000 people, and the Loudoun tour was expected to bring as many as 10,000.
At Crooked Run Orchard -- Loudoun's last apple orchard -- the consistent sound of crunching gravel from station wagons and minivans coming up the driveway yesterday offered a hint as to why the 240-year-old Quaker farm has stuck around.
Owner Sam Brown said his business relies almost entirely on people visiting the farm, either to buy produce from his farm stand or to pick their own fruit. He said he made 50 percent of last year's annual sales in October, largely from families making their seasonal pilgrimage.
This weekend, Brown rigged a hay-filled flatbed to his old, exhaust-spewing tractor and pulled young families on a wobbly tour of his family's 96-acre farm.
He made a gruff tour guide, mumbling details about how he tries to keep deer from his vegetable gardens, but the families didn't seem to mind.
"It's a beautiful day to experience the country," said Suyen Michlowitz, a Leesburg resident who lives 10 minutes away. Her 3-year-old daughter, Kasey, sat daintily next to her on a bale of hay, showing off her new pink Mary Janes.
Rodney Kagarise, an information technology specialist who lives in Lincoln, said he brought his two children, ages 5 and 3, because they like to pick apples and run around on the farm, and he likes to support the farmers. "With everything growing so fast, who knows how long they'll be around?" he said.
But moving into ventures that increase a farmer's ability to sell directly has led to some promising signs in the rural economy.
In Loudoun, although the amount of farmland in production from 1997 to 2002 slipped by 16 percent -- from 196,012 to 164,753 acres -- the market value of production increased by 39 percent, according to the most recent census by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
That's partly because farmers in Loudoun are moving away from traditional crops such as grain and cattle, which are sold at fixed prices on futures markets, and growing more valuable crops such as vegetables and fruits and selling them directly to consumers -- through farmers markets or by enticing people out to the farm to buy directly. Roadside stands, pick-your-own orchards and farm-based entertainment such as corn mazes all are becoming more popular ways to stay in business, said Warren Howell, agricultural marketing manager for the county's Department of Economic Development.
"Farmers are becoming price makers and not price takers," he said. "That is the real seminal idea behind the idea of bringing city folks to the farm."
Another way farmers have been setting prices is by charging at the gate.
For a $7 weekend admission fee at Layng's Flower Farm, another stop on the Loudoun farm tour about 10 miles south of Leesburg, children can paint pumpkins, jump on a moon bounce, take a hayride or try to pet Harold the duck.
It's a small-scale operation compared with Great Country Farms, a 300-acre farm in Bluemont where pig races, a pumpkin cannon and P-Rex the Pumpkin-Munchin Dinosaur brought record sales this weekend, said co-owner Kate Zurschmeide.
Melissa Layng, whose family owns the nursery, hopes the fall festival will help the business turn a profit for the first time since it moved to Loudoun in 2003. She said offering activities for children can free their parents to wander through the 16 greenhouses or pick out plants from the patchwork of red, bronze and yellow mums out front.
The strategy seemed to be working. On Saturday, Mitch Spencer of Ashburn said his family made the trip to the nursery because they needed to do some fall shopping. But while he halfheartedly rifled through a pile of oddly shaped gourds, his elated 6-year-old daughter made a beeline for the moon bounce. He conceded: "It's mostly for the kids."