Bumping along the rolling back fields in his aging pickup truck, Allen Hutchison proudly pointed to the boundaries of his family's sprawling 1,500-acre Loudoun County farm. But he grew a little tense when talk centered on the possibility of selling the land that his late father lovingly began acquiring in 1925.

"I don't know what he would think," said Hutchison, the youngest of five brothers still working the Waterford dairy and beef cattle farm. "I know he wouldn't have sold an inch of it while he was alive.

"But we're going to have to sell at some point because farming seems to be a lost art in Loudoun County," he said.

Hutchison's personal tug-of-war over whether to sell land that has been in his family's hands for more than a half century is not unique in a county whose farmers are rapidly becoming a dying breed. Many farmers want to sell their land to developers, and therein lies conflict with preservationists and environmentalists who want to protect a measure of Loudoun's rural character.

Like most American farmers, the majority of those remaining in Loudoun are meeting with increasingly tough financial times. Year after year, most barely break even due to a variety of factors, the worst of which is a depleted supply of labor lost to higher-paying, less back-breaking work whose job requirements do not include getting up at 4 a.m. to milk a sleepy cow.

More and more Loudoun farmers, who make up some of the county's largest landholders, have found a solution to their economic woes: their land. With development sweeping further away from Washington and deep into the fast-growing county, Loudoun farmers see their land in the future not as cow pastures and corn fields, but as new housing and offices.

Such a notion does not come without some hesitation.

"We would like to see it like it is forever, but that's a dream," said Hutchison, 43, the only Hutchison brother born in a hospital and not in a farm house.

The idea of farmers selling their land to developers does not sit well with many of the county's residents, particularly its vocal environmentalists and historic preservationists. Consequently, heated exchanges between farmers and those opposing rampant development are being heard more and more in this once-quiet corner of Northern Virginia. Farmers say that their land is their savings, and that they should be allowed, if the time comes, to accept the highest offer for it no matter who does the bidding.

But many residents interested in preserving the county's open space have been pushing for various areas of Loudoun to be protected from developers' bulldozers. One concept is to change zoning to permit only one home on a 20- or 30-acre lot instead of one house on every three acres, as most Loudoun farms are presently zoned. The result of any such zoning change, farmers claim, would be to drastically cut the value of their land, since developers pay less for land zoned for a lower building density.

"It's like having a savings account all your life, and then somebody saying it's only worth half," said Hutchison, known to his friends as Butch. "The way we look at it is that we've been the ones voluntarily preserving the land all along."

Such positions do not sit well with many of the county's preservation activists, who are not used to locking horns with the farmers.

"I just think it's very unfortunate," said Powell Harrison, founder of the Piedmont Environmental Council and a long-time force in the county's environmental movements. "The farmers normally are the preservationists' best friend, and vice versa. Their interests are normally the same as ours."

The farmer-preservationist spat has been brewing for several years in Loudoun. But matters intensified recently following a proposal that would have changed the zoning for much of the farmland surrounding the historic village of Waterford, including a portion of Hutchison's farm.

Last week, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors adopted a compromise plan for the tiny community of 210 under which property values of nearby farmland "would be protected to the greatest extent possible." In addition, the county agreed to a six-month survey of the village and farms to determine the impact of future development.

In the still-unresolved battle, farmers and villagers have become enemies. In the village, where preservation dominates, hang campaign posters for a candidate who is pushing a controlled-growth platform in next week's board of supervisors' race. But just outside the village, where farms dot the countryside, posters for a prodevelopment candidate are nailed to the sides of barns.

On being considered a foe by some in the town in which he grew up, Hutchison said, "It was very surprising."

Loudoun's farmers, a group better known as individuals than organizers, have begun using the tactics used by their opponents in the land debate. In response to the Waterford plan, a group of local farmers, including Hutchison and his brothers, formed Farmers Re-Solve (Save Our Land Value and Equity). The group is considering banding together farmers from throughout the county to fight the preservation movement.

But some preservationists say the farm group's goals are overly development-oriented.

"No one is trying to shut out the values of the farms," said Steve Robin, a board member of the Waterford Foundation, which supported the Waterford zoning plan. "But the issue gets down to one of balance."

Robin said that with the rapid rise in land values in the past several years, farmers can still make a vast profit even if they do not sell their land for the highest offer from a developer. He said the increasing land values have created "a windfall" for the farmers.

Such an opinion does not sit well with most farmers.

"When we sell we want to get the most we can out of the property," said Rumsey Light Jr., a 51-year-old dairy farmer in Aldie, where a community group's proposal to change zoned density was recently defeated, in part because of dissent from farmers.

"What upsets me are those moving out here in the past five years {who} tell us what to do with our land," said Light, whose 385-acre family farm is under a sales contract with a developer. "Farmers hate to hear people say, 'You've got to do this or that.' "

Other farmers agreed.

"These people come out here to the country and build a house. But then they don't want anyone else to come here," said Freemont Day Jr., a farmer in Purcellville. "And then they expect the farmer to bear the costs of holding this land for them to enjoy."

Day and his family understand suburban sprawl better than most. Until 1966, Day's former family farm was located in Fairfax County near Dulles International Airport. Today, housing developments and the Dulles Airport Access Road sit on the property farmed by Day's family for five generations.

"I've seen this all before. Back then they kept telling us we couldn't stop progress, and it's true," said Day, a beef and grain farmer. "Well, the same thing is happening now. I don't like to see the farms split up, but it's inevitable.

"A lot of these people who want to leave the land open only own one or two acres. If they want to save the open space, they ought to buy the land," said Day, whose father owns the massive farm near the village of Hillsboro. "A man can't afford to hold onto land, struggle with it, and then have {its value} be taken away by someone who wants to look at it. The land is just too much of an investment."

Day, who gets part-time help from two of his teen-age sons, said that with the current economic state of farming, "I don't even think I could encourage them to continue farming."

Most farmers agreed that without the once-abundant supply of farm labor, particularly from family members, growing crops and milking cows is becoming less and less financially possible. Making it additionally hard to eke out a living, the farmers said, they are faced with ever-rising machinery costs and fluctuating prices for their crops, milk and beef cattle.

"We don't want the housing here, but we might have to sell the land," said Waterford's Hutchison, who has two brothers in their 60s. "What we have for our retirement is our land. If we had some other way of knowing how to take care of ourselves, we would do so without selling the land."

He said one solution to the growing debate concerning the future of Loudoun's farmland would be to allow more cluster developments, whereby a developer could purchase a 100-acre parcel and be allowed to group homes tightly together on one section of the land so long as much of the parcel is left open.

Hutchison acknowledged it is difficult watching other Loudoun farmers become millionaires by selling to developers.

"I'll be honest about that," Hutchison said. "But we're not saying, 'Come in here and develop our land.' We just want to have the option."