Time To Try An ‘Honor System’ Farm Stand?

Social distancing and increased demand for fresh, local food could lead to a resurgence in self-service farm stops.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: Susan Brackney

A friend of mine buys just-picked produce, goat cheese and even fresh bread from a farm stand near her neighborhood, and, yep, I’m a little jealous.

The place is open daily from 9 to 6 and runs on the honor system. In other words? Customers roll up, grab what they need, stuff their cash or checks in a secure box nearby and go.

Self-service stands like this used to be pretty common. And in the age of coronavirus and the need for social distancing? They could very well make a comeback.

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Growing the Local Food Economy

Mike Record co-owns New Ground Farm in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife, Lisel. The pair modeled their Bethel Lane Farm Stop—the spot my friend frequents—after the Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“[The Argus is] a low-profit endeavor,” Record says. “They’re trying to put as much of the money that goes through the Farm Stop back into the farms as they can.”

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Besides providing locals with a convenient way to buy really fresh food, Record hopes to grow the local food economy. To that end, they consign goods from a dozen different vendors.

“We want to provide an outlet for small farms who might not have a quantity to sell into the grocery stores or maybe not even the quantity or the bandwidth in terms of time to go to a farmer’s market,” he says.

He partnered with a farmer who had fresh eggs and chicken as well as vendors offering their own beef, pork, goat cheese, granola, bread and more.

“We pay the vendors what has been determined that they’re owed, and the Farm Stop absorbs any theft or underpayment,” Record says.

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How It Works

To date, things have gone relatively well.

“Last year we ran at a small loss,” Record notes. “This year, we’re right on or maybe a little bit over.”

To determine its loss rate, the Farm Stop operates more like a traditional grocer than a roadside stand. Vendors bringing new products fill out intake forms for the items they wish to sell. Record then reconciles the value of any inventory that’s been removed with the amount of money brought in.

“The thing about an unattended farm stand with a cashbox is that there’s no way to make change,” Record says. To simplify transactions, most prices are in amounts requiring even dollars or quarters.

Customers can also pay with Venmo.

He adds, “Our policy is if you don’t have the right change, pay what you can and make it up next time. What tends to happen is people overpay rather than underpay.”

Honest or Not?

Record mounted the Farm Stop cash box on the back wall inside the barn that houses the retail space. “It’s inside a part of the barn that gets closed up at night,” he says.

So far, so good.

“We get asked all the time if we have security cameras up,” Record admits. “We decided if it’s going to be an honor system, then it’s going to be a 100 percent honor system.”

According to an NPR piece, “The Psychology Of The Honor System At The Farm Stand,” trust can be as powerful at motivating our behavior as guilt. And we get a boost of good feelings when we feel trusted.

Even so, Record says, “If someone is stealing food, then they probably need it…. We need to be able to absorb some of that if it occurs. And, honestly, we’re happy to do that if it means that someone who really needs food is getting it.”

farm stand stop honor system
Susan Brackney

Closer to Home

For what it’s worth, hearing about the Bethel Lane Farm Stop motivated me to do something similar in my own neighborhood—albeit on a much smaller scale.

The main differences between my “farm stand” and the one that inspired it? Although my stand has a slot for (optional) donations, everything is, technically, free. I live in a low-income area, and I purposely increased the size of my garden this year so I can share what I grow with anyone who needs it.

Also, I only set up my stand a couple of times per week—usually when I have extra goodies and the time to put them out. It has been an interesting experiment so far. My neighbors have picked up spare vegetable plants, herbs and cut flower bouquets.

I’ve even found some donations from time to time with which I’ll likely buy more seeds, potting soil and other gardening gear so I can keep the fresh food coming.

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