After decades of farming, Maphis Pilcher, James Bowler, Lonnie Woodson and Ed Clarke have sold out.

Gone are the daily worries over weather and prices, bugs and blight, hired hands and mortgages. But gone, too, are their farms.

Years ago, before prices skyrocketed, the four farmers had brought or fallen heir to land here on the Virginia Piedmont about 50 miles from Washington and the sale of their land has left then financially secure if not rich.

"Never having had money before, you're anxious to get your hands on some," said James Bowler. "But then you're sad. It was land you built up, walked over, was yours. But it's better to have owned the land than never to have had it." he said.

Diverse as individuals, the four farmers have much in common. Slowed down by the age of falling health, unable to keep hired hands, and lacking sons to take over their farms, they sold either to developes or investors or to older established farmers. Land prices on the outer fringes of the Washington area have become so high that young men can no longer afford to buy the land and farm it profitably as they once did, the farmers say.

Their decisions to sell were made separately, but each reflects the complex agricultural situation in the United States. The average age of a farmer is now 52 and 5 million acres of rural land - enough to form a three mile wide strip from Washington D.C., to San Francisco - is being absorbed every year.

The number of U.S. farms dropped from 3.7 million in 1469 to 2.9 million in 1974. Similar shifts were occuring in Virginia and in Fauquier County, where the value of farmland went up, on the average from $493 an arein 1969 to $978 an acre in 1974 according to the U.S. census.

The trends are all the wrong way as we look at longterm population and consumption growth," said Neil Samson of the Agriculture Department's Soil Conservation Service.

We're losing (from production) a million acres a year if the land best stated for farming. What you see is your land base diminishing. You can only go that way so long."

The statistics are clear and cold: the experience of Bowler, Woodson, Clarke and Pilcher present a human side to the process.

James A. Bowler, born on a farm near Gordonsville, Va. in 1909, bought 295 acres east of Warrenton in 1945 for less than $10,000.

"I told my father when I left Gordonsville that I was going to come back someday and buy the biggest farm there, but this was as far as I got on the way back." he said.

Bowler went to Washington where he put to either a tax fleet, married a school teacher and saved the money he used to buy his farm.

"We had hard times to start," Bowler said while seated in the spotless living room of a new brick home that would fit comfortably in Washington's most, expressive neighborhood.

"In about 1953 I needed more animals and equipment to make the farm go and I told this gentleman at a bank my story.

This man said, "James, I thought you couldn't make it. There's nothing more I can do for you." I came out and was walking up and down the street not knowing what to do when I met a real estate man, a free man. He told me to go to the Farmers Home Loan Administration. I was able to secure the loan, pay and bills and pay off the loan.

"From then on I was very careful about borrowing." Bevier said.

In 1964, Bowler went into the dairy business. Then years later he sold all but the 70 acres around his new house.

The help situation turned out to be very unreliable. I wouldn't get help that would stay with me and at my age nulking 60 and 71 cows morning and night was just to hard." he said.

If I had children I would have sacrified and kept most of the land." Bowler said.

Several farmers looked at his land but it was a prime location for development. He sold 124 acres to a developer for $258,000 and houses are springing up in his fields instead of corn and hay.

Now the Bowlers travel, spend time in church activities and keep a large garden. He also keeps about 100 feeder hogs, saying "I've worked all my life and its too late now to give it up."

The land he sold for $2,000 an acre is being resold for about $4,000 but said Bowler with a grin. "When I think about the people who sold to me I don't worry about that at all."

Lonnie Woodson, 61, was not born on a farm, but his wife, Roberdeaua was. They moved to Fauqueir County from Richmond in 1946 and started dairy farming with her father.

Woodson said help was a growing concern and "I got to wondering who we were working for." The Woodsons also have no children.

"If we sold, we could take care of ourselves the rest of our lives." he said.

The Woodsons built a new home wiith a splendid view of the Blue Ridge, moved out of the frame house in which Mrs. Woodson had been born and sold about 300 acres for about $600 an acre in 1970.

"At best I wouldn't have been able to farm too many more years. I was putting most of what I was wondering into the farm and I was wondering if I could get it back out. I regret selling sometimes. Sometimes I don't." Woodson said.

"There's a lot less pressure now. What was so hard was you'd make plans for a good crop and drought would hit and wipe out everything and if it wasn't drought it was bugs. You'd have a good cow and you'd go down or had a treat mashed off." he said.

"It was just so hard. It got to a point where I had had enough." he would go right back into farming and I wouldn't have solid if we'd had any children.

Woodson "had a notion of taking it easy" but didn't like it. Now he owns a tractor-trailer rig and hauls corn for other farmers.

Woodson sold his land near Remington to a farmer and it has stayed in production. "I would have been hesitatant to sell it to a developer," he said. "I might have. It seems like money talks. But I'm pretty sure I would have sold it to a farmer for less. I'm bitterly against houses going up on good farm land."

Edward L Clare, 58, grew up in adjacent Culpeper County and bought his 674 acre dairy farm from his father in 1952. "It was a labor problem with me." he said. "I just couldn't get help. I'd have to get my wife and daughter to help on the weekends," Clarke said.

"I didn't know if my daughter would marry a farmer or not. I think the farmers who have sons who work with the operations are still farming." he said

He sold 520 acres for $277,000 in 1973 and for a few years rented it back and raised grain. Now he sells machinery for the John Deere Co., a job that keeps him "working with farmers."

"I took the job because I wanted to work. I could live without it, but I didn't want to retire," he said, adding that his 12-hour farm work day has been cut in half.

"I believe I'm doing better (financially) than I did owning the farm," Woodson said. The land is now owned by a Washington area dentist and Woodson said he believes it will remain a farm. "Development is taking up a lot of land. I hate to see that but I don't know if we can control it," he said.

Maphis Pilcher, 73, "was farming since he was in a high chair," siad his wife Edna, 75.

The Pilchers' 550-acre farm was considered by many neighbors to be the finest in the county, Woodson said. "Maphis was a hard worker. He didn't know anything but work. He was a good farmer."

"We had to sell because his health broke," Mrs. Pilcher said. "I didn't have to sell it from a financial standpoint, Pilcher said. "I'd be all right now if I could walk right."

The Pilchers who came to this land 50 years ago this fall, sold in 1973 for $833 an acre.

They moved from the two-story farmhouse into a new one-story brick home designed to grow old in and Edna Pilcher says she will never go back to the old house that was so hard to leave.

They farmed through the Depression when they could no longer afford to pay the help a dollar a day and the men stayed on to work for three full meals.

They "sent three daughters through college and ate three meals a day," Mrs. Pilcher said. Her husband wanted to sell to a farmer but said "can't any young man buy it. There's no way in the world he could pay for it."

Now the fields he so carefully tended are filling with weeds and houses are springing up as the land is cut into lots.

"You hate it after you made it what it was," Maphis Pilcher said. "They're going to need this good land to produce food someday and I hate to sell it built into houses."

"I hated to give up the land but I couldn't work," he said. "There comes a time in everybody's life when you have a quit," and hsi eyes filled with tears.

Edna Pilcher changed the subject to their grandchildren.