Loudoun County still looks like farm country, with fields full of sheep near Waterford, grain silos and tractors from Lovettsville to Aldie, stone farmhouses, red barns and acres and acres of open land.

But over the past 10 years, thousands of acres of Loudoun farmland have been converted to other uses, split into 10-acre mini-estates, subdivided into planned communities or left to the deer and opposum. And that has the farmers worried.

In a small room in Leesburg, where farmers, landowners and county planners gathered recently to talk about preserving the county's farmland, feelings ran deep.

"We take for granted that we need to break out of the cycle that growth leads to higher taxes, which forces farmers to sell their land, which leads to more development and higher taxes," said Charles Planck, a farmer from Purcellville. "We want to channel growth or charge for growth so that the people who benefit from growth pay for it."

For Loudoun farmers struggling with inflated operating costs, recent conversions of farmland to subdivisions comes at a difficult time. To make a living from farming, Loudoun farmers say they have to farm more land than they did 20 years ago. But almost one-third of the land in the county is now split into lots of 30 acres or less, essentially draining that land from the pool of arable acreage.

In an effort to stem the tide of conversions, the Planning Commission last fall appointed the Citizens Committee for the Rural Land Management Plan to advise the commission on how to rewrite the county's master plan for the rural areas. The committee, split into four subcommittees, has been brainstorming for the past six months on how to preserve farmland and the rural towns and villages. And with recommendations from those subcommittees now surfacing, the debate over Loudoun's farmland is heating up.

Loudoun's farmers have pioneered agricultural preservation efforts in the state of Virginia before, but the recommendations made last week by the agriculture subcommittee may be so new that they might need enabling legislation from Richmond before they can be implemented. And they don't even know how it would work yet.

The long-range goal would be to institute a program where farmers permanently could sell their right to develop their land to someone else, explained Planck, the subcommittee's chairman. It's called Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) and would be designed to preserve farmland in one section of the county while allowing increased development in other areas.

Acknowledging that a TDR program might take years to develop, the subcommittee suggested that the county take interim measures such as leasing development rights from farmers or increasing the long-term tax benefits for farmers with a commitment to farming.

Loudoun County already allows farmers to defer taxes under a program called the use-value assessment. It works by assessing farmers according to the way they use their land, not on its potential use. Because farm land is assessed at a lower value than developed land, the use-value program cuts the average farmer's total tax bill in half. If that land is developed subsequently, the deferred taxes have to paid, along with 8 percent annual interest.

Members of Planck's subcommittee said that they support the use-value program but believe in preventing its use by people who are not legitimate farmers. Under the current program, anyone with at least five acres of land and a gross incone -- not net income -- of $1,000 from farming can get the use-value deferment.

The use-value assessment program costs the county $3 million each year in deferred taxes, money that people in suburban eastern Loudoun County say comes right out of their pockets. But the farmers believe they still cost the county less than they contribute in taxes, even with the use-value assessement, and they would like to see the county institute even better tax incentives.

One of the subcommittee's suggestions was for the county to increase the tax break in proportion to how long the farmer was willing to promise not to develop his land, including possibly lifting the requirement to pay back taxes if the farmer made a commitment of 16 years or more.

But some members of the committee said such a program could play right into the hands of the developers.

"That would look very attractive to a developer," said Peter Burnett, a Leesburg resident on the committee. "They could buy land, lease the development rights to the county, get the tax break for 16 years while they wait for the market demand [for development in western Loudoun] to increase, then develop their land and make the big bucks."

For the people in suburban eastern Loudoun, who have supported farmland preservation efforts in the past, additional concessions to western Loudoun's farmers may not be welcome. Over the next 15 years, 10,000 additional houses will be built in eastern Loudoun, growth that will strain county services severely unless taxes are increased to cover the costs of new schools and fire stations.

"There are problems beginning to surface already," said Democratic Supervisor Carl Henrickson, whose Broad Run district includes the area slated for the most growth. "If the $3 million [from the use-value assessment program] was collected from the farmers, it would reduce the tax bill for the average eastern Loudoun homeowner by $300. Eastern Loudouners would be willing to increase the subsidy, but only if there is a reciprocal commitment from farmers to stay in farming."

The TDR program could mean a permanent commitment from farmers, but it is the permanence that makes everyone nervous. A similar program was set up a year ago in Montogomery County, Maryland, under a system where anyone who owns land in the Agricultural Reserve can sell the development rights to a developer seeking to increase density in a "receiving area," a part of the county designated for growth.

Melissa Banach, the program director, said it has worked well, with 2200 acres of farmland already processed. But she also explained that the TDRs can be given by a farmer to his or her children through a will, which does not guarantee the children will not choose to develop the land.

But for the average Loudoun farmer, there is a lot of skepticism about a permanent commitment. "I'm all for saving farmland," said Francis Peacock, a farmer from near Paeonian Springs. "But a lot of these farmers, I don't think they will fall for it. I wouldn't do it."

For the people who live in the areas of the county that might be designated as "receiving areas," the idea of increased growth in their neighborhoods is questionable. "Eastern Loudouners like the open space in western Loudoun, but they also want to see some open space in eastern Loudoun," said Henrickson.

With the problems associated with the TDR program, the rural plan committee may choose to accept only the subcommittee's interim suggestions, including recommending that the Planning Commission look into the county leasing farmer's development rights. But even that will have to pass the political hurdle of approval from the people of eastern Loudoun, and that may not be easy.

"If the farmers want to be legitimate farmers, I say let them have it for free," said Henrickson. "But if they want to be land speculators, let them pay as land speculators."