Tom Albright opened his roadside stand when he was 6 years old.

"He sold vegetables out of our garden in the back yard and didn't even know how to make change," his father, Milton Albright, recalled. "One old man used to cheat him out of a nickel now and then.

"There wasn't much traffic along Sweet Air Road, and he was lucky to bring in $15 a day, but he put himself through college with the money."

Tom Albright, 36, is still going against the odds, making a living for his wife and two children in a time when farm conglomerates threaten the existence of the small farmer.

Milton Albright and his wife, Paula, now help their son and his family at the vegetable and flower stand in front of the elder Albrights' home across Sweet Air Road from the Jacksonville Volunteer Fire Department in Baltimore County.

"Tom's the owner," says the elder Mr. Albright, 74, a retired Towson State University electrician. "My wife and I just help out."

"They're the cream on this whole thing," says Tom Albright. "They work for free. Won't even let us take them out to dinner."

For people like the Albrights and their customers, the lush rewards of that hard work are streaming from the fields to vegetable stands and farmers' markets across Maryland. Local corn and tomatoes are arriving in quantity, a little late because of a cool spring. Cantaloupes, summer squashes, cucumbers, beets and eggplants are here or will be soon. Vegetables that need a nip of chill for best taste, such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale, will be along later.

On one hot day recently, Paula Albright was watering seedlings in the greenhouses behind her home.

"I'm three hours behind, and they're beginning to wilt," she said as she pulled the hose along. "Had to mind my two grandchildren this morning." She waters thousands of vegetable and flower seedlings three or four times a day, and that's the easy part.

For three months starting in March, the elder Albrights work in the greenhouses seven days a week, planting seeds and caring for the sprouting plants. The heavy work comes when they transplant their sturdy seedlings to the fields, five acres a week for 12 weeks, give or take. The Albrights grow all their own vegetables and flowers. The only things they buy from other farmers are fruits.

Milton Albright was born on a farm on Sweet Air Road about a mile east of Manor Road, and two of his four brothers, also in their 70s now, still work the 150-acre property. His son, who has an agronomy degree from the University of Maryland at College Park, intends to maintain a tradition that stretches back four generations to his forefathers in Germany.

"I've always wanted to farm," Tom Albright says. "I could probably make more money with a regular job, but I'm going to stay in this as long as I can pay my bills." He lives on a 23-acre farm on Old York Road with his wife, Karen, a Loyola College graduate, and two sons. He leases another 175 acres in various-sized parcels elsewhere in Baltimore County for about $50 an acre a year.

He says farmland is too expensive to buy if you want to make money on the investment. Unimproved farmland sells for $3,500 to $5,000 an acre in the area, according to Bud Sparks, manager of the Farm Credit Bureau office in Hereford.

Some fetches $20,000 an acre

"The price depends on location and zoning," he says. "The high end is about $20,000 an acre for estate-like property in a place like Worthington Valley. The demand is heavy for that. The demand for ordinary farmland is just average."

"The farmer is better off leasing, because it's hard to get your principal and interest out in corn, wheat or soybeans, much less make a profit," Mr. Sparks says. "You have a chance with vegetables if the weather is right."

About one-quarter of Baltimore County's 390,000 acres is in farm production, but the county is a midget compared with the giants of state agriculture, the Eastern Shore counties of Wicomico and Worcester.

There, farming and the huge poultry industry account for nearly a quarter of the state's income from cash agricultural sales.

Overall, statistics from the Maryland Department of Agriculture show a steady decline in small farms like the Albrights' and a slight increase in farms of 1,000 acres or larger since 1982.

Lloyd Reynolds, president of the Baltimore County Farm Bureau, says that 1,310 families are registered with the bureau as farm families, but only about 350 are considered full-time farmers.

But Tom Albright is more interested in the weather than in abstract figures. A severe drought in 1988 almost wiped him out, and led to his only assistance from the government. "The county was declared a disaster area, and we got some low-interest loans and small grants," he says. "But I really don't look to the government for anything. No one should promise you a living."

He would like to see the farm population get some respect, however, and he resents what he perceives as a negative public attitude toward farmers. "People say, 'Look at him, he's getting rich.' I pay a $6,000-a-year health insurance bill, a 13.6 percent self-employment tax, workmen's comp, and I have to provide for my own retirement. I don't mind, because this is what I choose to do, but I'm not getting rich," he says.

He also has a considerable investment in specialized farm equipment for vegetables, plus four large and three small tractors and three pickup trucks. He buys used equipment and fixes it up himself.

He pays two young Mexican men to help him for six months each year. They get about $300 a week plus free housing in a tenant house on the Old York Road farm.

"They're excellent workers," Tom Albright says. "We tried local people, including some from the city, but it didn't work out at all. One of the young men has been with me for five years."

Another aggravation is the allegation that farmers are heavy polluters of streams and rivers.

"We're less than 1 percent of the state population, but we're blamed for 40 percent of the pollution," he says. "We're a high-tech industry now, with all the latest techniques for keeping pollution down and production up.

"We use minimum till or no till to cut runoff and keep blowing dust down, and we measure pesticides and herbicides by the ounce," he says. "It obviously pays me to keep amounts as small as possible."

All that seems a distant problem to Milton Albright as he sits in the shade of a huge maple tree and gives advice to customers looking for choice flower plants.

"I started the flowers for Tom when I retired," he says. "I knew all about farming, but nothing about flowers. Now the flowers make up about 25 percent of the business."

Kevin Mahoney, a 15-year-old Dulaney High School student, arrives to mind the stand, which is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day but Sunday. He is one of four Dulaney students who work for the Albrights during the summer. "Some people are never satisfied," he says, laughing. "They look around, they think you're keeping the best corn in the garage."

Corn is king of the road stands

In the vegetable-stand business, corn is king. "People start asking for corn in May," Milton Albright says. "It's what draws people to the stand. You produce good corn and you've got a good business. We pick corn three or four times a day, and keep it cool and damp. And we don't keep it overnight. We feed it to Tom's cows."

The Albrights will sell 500 dozen ears of corn on a good Saturday, and 2,000 dozen in a peak week.

"You have to make it right now," says Milton Albright. "We have six months when hardly a dime comes in. We still work, fixing machinery and painting, but we don't make any money."

Does he have any tips for customers?

"Yes," he answered. "Women like to squeeze the tomatoes. Men pull open the husks on the ears of corn to check the kernels.

"You can bring them back if they aren't right," says Mr. Albright, "but please don't squeeze the tomatoes."

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