Foreclosure actions are sprouting as fast as spring wheat on farms throughout the country. Beleaguered farmers are suffering through one of the worst times since the Great Depression. To survive, many operators are taking advantage of their small size to scramble quickly into new markets that may point the way for family farms in the future.

Some farmers are targeting regional niches, supplying products for fast-growing ethnic and upscale urban communities. For example, a small green vegetable called a tomatillo is widely consumed by Mexican-Americans, and new uses for garlic are making that herb more popular among yuppies. Larger operators generally bypass these products because of the relatively small market for them, and because the farmers may already be committed to long-term contracts to grow different crops. "It is, in a sense, something born out of survival," says Tom Haller, executive secretary of the California Association of Family Farmers. "[Small farmers] are using their flexibility to take markets often overlooked by their large counterparts."

Many small farmers are also banding together to run open-air markets. In Texas, the number of such markets has more than tripled in two years to a total of 19, and officials expect as many as 10 more in 1985. Farmers run about 85 markets in California, up from 37 in 1980. Other farmers are now selling to restaurants, responding to the growing popularity of fresh vegetables. "The demand for locally grown produce is substantial all over the country," says August Schumacher, cochairman of the D.C. Federation of Farmers Markets, in Washington, D.C. "People who know what they are doing are making a killing."