The man said his name was Little Beaver, and that was all. He stood amid the tar-paper-patched shacks and oozing puddles in a squalid migrant labor camp on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

He took little notice of the old man staggering drunkenly nearby as other migrants laughed, of a wan-faced boy who sat staring straight ahead, his mouth ajar with a fixed smile, or of the small children playing and squealing in the rutted, muddy roads.

"I can't tell you how much I like the work," said Little Beaver. "I been working like this since I was 18. "I'm 33 now. I like it a lot. I've got a TV and stereo in my room. It's not bad. The crew leader's a good man, and I can earn as much as I can pick."

But the way of life that Little Beaver said appeals to him so much may be disappearing.

Little Beaver is one of perhaps 10,000 migrants who came to the rich, flat farmlands of the Delmarva Peninsula this summer, as they have every year for decades, to harvest the tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables ripening in the fields.

Next summer, say many of the peninsula's farmers, there will not be so many migrants. Each year the number declines. The jobs once offered them vanish, filled by local workers or machines. The camps that house them close down.

"Last year we had 2,700 migrants in Northampton and Accomack counties. "I'm talking about workers in the fields, not families," said Joe Routzong of the Virginia Employment Commission in Exmore. "Now we have 1,400. Next year I'd be surprised if we get 1,000."

Last year, said Routzong, there were 69 camps operating on Virginia's part of the Delmarva Peninsula. This year there were 55.

Officials in Delaware and Maryland tell similar stories. "Since '61, when I started working with them, there's been quite a drop in people coming up (from Florida and Texas)," said Jim Slaughter at the Maryland State Employment Service in Salisbury. "The older migrant we've come to know, who has traveled up and down - there's not too many of them left."

Experienced, savvy workers - like Little Beaver, or like 47-year-old William Wallace at a small camp near Federalsburg, Md. - say they hate to see their way of life fading away.

Wallace, a gaunt, good-humored man, said he went to work in the fields after "family problems" forced him to leave the Air Force. His rough, hardened hands speak to the 25 years since.

But as he looked out across the long rows of vegetables surrounding the plywood shacks where his crew had made its home, he seemed not to regret a moment. "You feel like you're producing something. You know, food doesn't just get on the table, somebody's got to put it there - and we do that."

For others, the migrant life is not so much a choice as an inescapable condition dictated by their past and their own limitations.

Ben Gibbs, a strong, quiet man in the same camp as Wallace, told a visitor he had worked in the fields for 29 years, since he was 12 years old. "I suppose," he said, and the faint smile that had been on his face disappeared, "it's the only kind of work I can do, now."

Some of these people wouldn't get nowhere if somebody didn't take 'em," said 62-year-old Booker T. Gould, the crew leader at the Federalsburg camp. It is men such as Gould, officially known as "farm labor contractors," who sign up with a farmer to supply a certain number of workers, at a certain time, for what is supposed to be a specified price.

Gould - who has the reputation among area social workers and, more importantly, among his crews, of being a fair man - said many migrant workers appreciate the opportunity to work.

Gould paused. "That is, if it's the right man that picks 'em up they like it. Now you take some of these crew leaders, they charge 'em $45 to $50 a week for food. Some charge 'em to take 'em to town."

In such situations, said Gould, a man may get so far into debt, he'll never get out by working the fields. Gould said that he himself once worked for "a man with 70 head (people) in his crew. I worked for that guy a long time. But he done his people too much wrong, so I quit."

To a considerable extent it is those crew leaders who have done their people "too much wrong," and the public's reaction to their abuses, who are responsible for the decline in the migrant system as a whole. Each year stories circulate around the Eastern Shore about workers who are literally held in bondage by unscrupulous crew leaders.

Migrant workers are often in a position of dependance on such men. At the most isolated camps he may supply them - and charge them dearly - not only for food and shelter and transportation, but for cigarettes, liquor and sometimes even sex supplied by prostitutes he brings to the camps.

Cases of physical abuse are often alleged, according to area social workers and members of the Washington-based Migrant Legal Action Program. In one case, reported last year, a pregnant worker was beaten so badly when she protested her low wages that she lost the baby she was carrying and eventually had to undergo a hysterectomy.

"Some crew leaders are fairly decent," said Christopher Camuto, director of Migrant and Seasonal Farm-workers Office in Northampton County, "but some just look like tuned-up overseers."

"We have had cases," said Camuto, "of people who left their camps and walked for three nights to get here to our office. They were afraid to walk in the day when they could be seen and taken back.

"Basically you're talking about the dregs of the crew leaders who can't hold a good crew together," Camuto continued. "They'll take a van and go get bums from wherever."

If the "bums" don't work out, as often they do not, they may simply be left stranded by the side of the road with no way to get home.

At the Lakeside Home Interagency Care Facility in Accoma, Va., a temporary shelter for migrants, staffers have noticed an increasing number of people recently released from mental institutions, in addition to the alcoholic workers who have become a regular feature of the migrant scene.

"We had one camp," said Newport News, Va., sociologist Lea Pellett, who has done extensive research on the migrant population of the Eastern Shore, "where most of the people thought they were Jesus Christ or Napoleon."

"We run into a number of people each year who are severely mentally disabled," said Sue Canning of the Delmarva Ecumenical Agency Rural Ministries."I was in one camp the other day where there were some teen-age girls who could not remember when their birthdays were."

It is in reaction to such stories reported over the last decade that a number of laws and regulations have been set up to protect the migrant workers. Today much of the reduction in the workers is traced by some to the government's interest in helping them.

Moreover, the rules and edicts have grown so numerous, convoluted and in some cases contradictory, that, as one U.S. Labor Department investigator new to the area put it: "I'm frankly confused by all of them. I don't see how the farmers and crew leaders can keep them straight."

"You can take all those regulations and you can just pack 'em as far as you can get 'em," said Irving Handy, a farmer with land both in Delaware and Maryland. He decided to shut down his labor camp this year, forget about planting cucumbers, and bought a new kind of machine that is supposed to harvest tomatoes.

Handy had built his migrant camp, at a cost of $50,000, only four years ago. The first crew he housed there wrecked the place, he said, so he didn't invite them back. The second year he hired a Spanish-speaking crew composed mainly of families, and things worked out well.

The third year the same crew leader came back but brought mainly single men. A raid by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service carted off 15 of them, said Handy, because they turned out to illegal aliens. "I lost three weeks of picking," said Handy. "There goes my whole profit."

This year, rather than cope with INS, a water inspector, a health inspector, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators, and assorted social workers from private agencies, Handy shut the camp. "I'm gonna turn it into a nog shed."

"There has been a real balkanization of enforcement and service agencies dealing with migrants," said Pellett. "In Virginia the health code has been in the hands of at least three separate agencies - the Health Department, the Labor Department, and the Employment Commission.

"And despite that, it would be possible to walk into a camp with no running water, fecal matter in the ditches. There has been all that inspecting, and nothing was done."

Recently there has been efforts to coordinate migrant services more efficiently at the state level, under the direction of Dr. Jean Harris, Virginia's secretary of human resources. But, as Pellett said: "A lot of farmers are farmers precisely because they don't want a lot of regulation."

Pellett worked for a panel on migrant and seasonal farm workers of the President's Commission on Mental Health, which submitted its report earlier this year. It's conclusion, as Pellett said, "is that migrancy should be eliminated."

Those opposed to migrant labor altogether advocate the use of more day labor from among the ranks of the unemployed from nearby cities and towns.

For years the farmers have complained that such people will not do the dirty, strenuous labor necessary for the harvest of vegetables that could not be picked by machine. But now that the minimum wage has risen to $2.65 an hour, Virginia officials say that there has been a significant increase in the number of local workers - including high school and college students on summer vacation - willing to work on the farms.

This trend, along with the incipient movement toward mechanization (in California, most tomatoes are already picked by machines), and the growth of nonagricultural industries on the Eastern Shore (possibly including a major metal fabrication plant), may eventually mark the end of the migrant presence there.

Ironically, however, as their numbers diminish the conditions of those who remain may grow worse. "As more and more options become available to people who are better educated and they leave the migrant stream," said Pellett, "you tend to find more people in the camps who are there because they cannot protect themselves."