10 Minutes With Jeff Mcpherson

The author of a book on honor-system marketing touts the method’s benefits he’s experienced at his own farm stand.

by Dani Yokhna
Jeff Mcpherson is a farmer, professor and author of Honor System Marketing. Photo courtesy Jeff Mcpherson (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo courtesy Jeff Mcpherson

Jeffery L. Mcpherson holds a Bachelor of Science in agronomy from North Carolina State University and has more than 20 years of experience growing and marketing horticultural crops. He teaches horticulture and enology at a North Carolina community college and travels frequently, giving presentations and workshops about honor-system marketing, basic enology and winemaking. Mcpherson and his wife, Brenda, have operated an honor-system market on their farm for more than a decade. Honor System Marketing: Discovering Honesty, Trust & Profit Amongst the Goodness of People (Acres U.S.A., 2011) is his first book.

Hobby Farms: What is the honor-system marketing concept?

Jeff Mcpherson: Honor-system marketing has been around for a long time. It is a unique form of selling where customers pick out their items, tally their purchases, and put their money in a cash box—all without supervision. In effect, customers serve themselves and, in doing so, express their true integrity by deciding whether to pay. There’s an element of old-fashioned trust present, both by the seller and the customer, that makes the system work. There are many examples around the world where honor-system marketing is used successfully. Many of these are listed in my book, Honor System Marketing.

I have been using honor-system marketing for about 14 years to sell produce at my farm in Lumberton, N.C., just south of Raleigh. I employ the honor-system marketing method at my farm stand because it’s profitable and rewarding. I let it work for me, and in doing so, the farm-stand business does not employ me. Honor-system marketing is like having an employee who doesn’t mind working all day, every day; never complains; never takes breaks; never gets sick; and never expects a salary or benefits!

Trusting customers to do the right thing is risky, but staffing a farmers’ market is also risky (and expensive). Business owners must weigh the pros and cons, then decide for themselves if honor-system marketing is right for them.

HF: Why does honor-system marketing work?

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JM: There are many philosophical and tangible reasons that honor-system marketing works. Trusting others is a serious aspect of society that could use reinforcement right now, and for me, this takes on a spiritual component. In my heart, I believe humanity shares a kindred spirit. One reason honor-system marketing works for me is because it creates a deeper connection between my customer and me—the farmer—and, in turn, the earth.

Another reason that honor-system marketing works is the social aspect. Society thirsts for positive opportunities for expression. On an individual level, both the seller and buyer get that chance with honor systems. Being trusted and trusting others promotes and even fosters positive social change.

Other more tangible benefits of honor-system marketing include low operating costs, it works while you’re away, it sells things that may normally go to waste, it requires no sales people, it brings in extra cash, anyone can employ it, and a variety of goods can be sold (or rented).

Traditional methods of selling produce that involved peddling and staffing a booth at farmers’ markets didn’t work for me. I do not enjoy sitting and waiting for customers to arrive. I don’t find this to be an efficient use of my time. Don’t get me wrong, I love helping customers and I talk with my customers, when I happen to be at my farmers’ market stand at the same time, but with so many farm things to look after, I really need to focus on running the farm.

I recall one spring selling strawberries in three different locations at the same time because there was such an abundant harvest. I used the honor system to sell at the farmers’ market and my roadside stand while my wife and I spent time selling berries at various local festivals and events. Picking the berries and stocking the three markets was the most challenging part of the plan. But it worked well, and in the end, we sold all of our berries.

HF: How does this concept fit into sustainable and small-scale farming models?

JM: Globally, sustainable agriculture ultimately means human survival. Trust builds sustainability, and honor-system marketing is a part of the total sustainability package. There are thousands of ways to practice sustainability, and I feel that honor-system marketing is a viable and valuable way to do this.

Utilizing after-hours selling time with the honor system is often a good way to bring in more farm income because many times a farmer cannot afford to staff the market 12 hours per day. The ability to sell 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year (if you like) ensures that you maximize the amount of product that gets into customers’ hands, which is a very sustainable practice.

Small-scale farmers might consider using honor-system marketing to provide an on-farm market for local customers. Value-added products exclusive to a particular farmer are important to offer for sale, and word-of-mouth endorsements can lead to many long-term relationships with customers. Tourists, always looking for something unique and unusual, will often travel out of the way and come back to a farm stand time after time, particularly if it is open extended hours using an honor-system method.

Heirloom and culturally specific products are becoming popular and are ideal for small-scale farms, especially if they’re produced with sustainable practices. These products sell well at honor-system markets and add to the allure.

Products that might normally be wasted or discarded can be sold at honor-system markets, adding to profits that would not have been received using conventional-marketing methods.

In Honor System Marketing, I describe many additional ideas for farmers’ market owners, such as supplementing the market with bulletin boards and sign-up sheets to draw attention and sell more products. One example is to post the prices of store-bought vegetables on a board for customer comparisons. Also, give folks a chance to reserve luscious sweet corn via a sign-up sheet they can fill out in advance of the harvest season. Some daytime staffed markets offer an after-hours honor system with a discount table to sell good-quality but soon-to-be-discarded items.

HF: What advice do you have for small-scale farmers who are looking for the best direct-sales arrangement for their business?

JM: Start small and grow slowly into it. Tell your good customers about your plans to implement the honor system into your marketing strategy. Tell customers why it will help them as well as the advantages the system brings to your farm situation.

Begin by incorporating honor-system marketing into your current selling method. Try it on a small scale, such as during your lunch break or after hours.

Do not be too quick to judge the success of your experiments. Give it some time to really work and weigh the benefits. Keep records so you can see for yourself if it’s profitable. Be patient!

Most importantly, keep a positive attitude about honor-system marketing. I believe confidence in the concept encourages its success. Oddly enough, my first, and perhaps most difficult, obstacle to using honor-system marketing was a lack of faith in the concept. Specifically, I did not buy into the idea that trusting others was key. Now after years of success, my philosophy is that honor-system marketing is contagious.

HF: What else would you like Hobby Farms readers to know about honor-system marketing and your work?

JM: An incredible fact I have discovered is that when honor-system marketing is used, most people, when they are trusted, do not steal!

Also, I would like others to think positively when they employ honor-system marketing. Do not focus on being the victim of theft. Focus on the positive, and positive things will happen. Customers with integrity will attract others with similar qualities. Work hard to get and keep these people. Trust is something that is hard to develop and easy to lose.

Honor systems benefit the entire community because everyone has the opportunity to express their integrity. I believe honor-system marketing contributes to positive cultural changes in our society. Our society needs more honor systems.

In my heart, I sense a positive change is happening, and I am not alone. Something wonderful and intriguing is happening. For me, I can express it as an awareness of truth, trust, respect for life and real integrity. Honor-system marketing fits into the concept of positive change. As we allow ourselves to awaken to a new understanding, we are creating a new way of life, a better way, a more trusting way.


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