Rotten to the core: How one bad apple can derail the farmstand honor system

I get mixed comments about my “honor system” farm stand. Most people say this “old-fashioned concept” brings back childhood memories of visits to roadside stands with their parents — “simpler times” when people were generally honest and crime was something that happened somewhere else — you know, the often cited but probably mythical “good ole days.”

Other comments are more colorful. “You’d better bolt that refrigerator to the ground or someone’s going to come along and take it,” from one 20-something man. A woman who’d been in the country for 15 years said, “You couldn’t do this in Romania, they’d cart away everything.”

The farm sits off a dead-end, rural road in northern Orange County, just five miles north of historic Hillsborough. A recreational lake is at the opposite end of the long road, so traffic picks up with non-residents passing by when the weather is nice. The farm stand is visible from the main road, about 300-feet away and alongside a gravel road that traverses into the farm. The stand itself is a 12-foot by 12-foot, two-sided post and beam structure with metal roof and two open sides. The wooden sign over the stand is homemade, with clumsily-painted black letters on a white background. At one point, a professionally-produced banner hung in its place with a matching one at the farm entrance, but a wind storm took out both and I haven’t gotten around to replacing them.

The little store has its roots in an idea I first had as a 7-year old, when I dragged cinder blocks home in a wagon, taken from one of many construction sites in the growing subdivision where I then lived in Georgia. My goal was to build a backyard store where I’d sell the packs of Smith Brothers cherry cough drops I planned to purchase from my school store. Obviously, that business model needed some massaging. Dad quickly took away my building permit when he came home from work that night and saw my pirated cinder block construction site.

Fast-forward many years and once again I’m building something. I’ve taken 14-acres of raw land and created a farm. Customers visit the stand to purchase duck and chicken eggs, raw goat milk (pet milk), and whatever happens to be growing in the modest garden, based both on the season and picking time allowed by my full-time, off-farm job. The customers like the old-fashioned system of picking out their produce, tallying up their total, then stuffing cash or check into the slot on the wooden box attached to the wall. It’s a totally self-serve, honor system. Often, people leave more than they owe. Many tell me I’m undercharging, especially for naturally-grown products. I keep paper and pen at the stand so some customers leave notes telling me how much they enjoy the food. If they have a balance because they didn’t have change, they leave a note explaining their credit. Over an eight-year period, I’ve never had anyone steal — until now.

A few weeks ago, I installed a wireless camera at the farmstand. Not because of security concerns, but because that location captures movement coming up the driveway. I can see who is coming before they reach the house. It was a Friday afternoon when my phone chimed, announcing movement near the stand. I opened the app briefly, saw the car stop at the stand, closed the app, and went back to what I was doing. Once enough time had passed for the visitor to complete their purchase, I opened the video library to see who had been there. Watch the video here.

The woman was a stranger. She walked towards the stand, opened the refrigerator door, and briefly scanned the contents. She reached in, took a carton of eggs, closed the door, then turned to leave. She made no move to pay, wasn’t carrying a purse, and her workout pants didn’t look like they held a pocket.

Confused, I walked down to the stand and opened the cash box. No money. I looked under the table, and checked the floor. No cash or check. I opened the refrigerator and confirmed what I’d seen on the video. One missing carton of eggs.

Egg Thief

Farm stand freeloader

 

It was a warm spring day with temperature hovering around 70 degrees, but the woman was wearing a knit hat with hair shoved underneath. You could see just a bit of what looked like either red or brown hair. She also wore dark sunglasses. After about the sixth time replaying the video, I had to let go of the idea she’d just forgotten to pay. I noted she appeared to briefly scan the adjoining property before walking directly to her car, egg carton in one hand.

When someone steals from you, whether it’s an item of great value or something as small as a $3 carton of eggs, something happens psychologically. My first response was to drive around the neighborhood looking for her vehicle, what appeared to be a navy or black Volkswagen Jetta hatchback or station wagon. This was followed by locking the front gate to the property for the night. The next day, I entered the angry stage.

Why do some people steal? I’ve given away eggs, milk, meat, and produce over the years. If this woman had left a note stating she took eggs because she was hungry, I’d be all over figuring out who she is so I could give her a full bag of food. Instead, she’s proven what some people have said — the honor system only works with honorable people. I was angry that this woman had altered what I’d had.

Like a bulldog with a chew toy, I wasn’t ready to let go yet. I posted the video to my Facebook page to run it by friends. What should I do with this, I asked. The overwhelming consensus was a modern day version of the stocks and pillories used throughout history to publicly shame criminals — social media. Within a day, the post had been shared more than 180 times. For a small town, that’s good coverage.

They also liked the idea of a note on the refrigerator door, something that would call attention to the security camera and put the woman on notice that she’d been seen. As one friend put it, “She’ll probably want more eggs in about a week.”

Fridge note

Note on refrigerator door

So it’s a new world. When people say, “But aren’t you worried about people stealing?” I can no longer smile and cite an 8-year success rate of no honor violations at the farmstand. I’ve ordered another security camera, one that allows two-way conversation. The optimist in me says this was just one bad apple, but I’ll be more vigilant. I can’t help thinking of the Russian proverb made popular by Suzanne Massie in the 1980s: “Doveryai, no proveryai.” Trustbut verify.

 

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