Spring and its abundance reminds me that I have not yet encountered a particular phenomenon in California.

There are farmstands here, of course. Particularly in the Central Valley, that wide swath of green that provides food to the nation. These farmstands are decorated with signs that trumpet “Pecans” or “Strawberries.” But you’ll always find a person there, ready to exchange produce for cash.

Back in Western Massachusetts, where I lived for more than a decade, I came to love the farmstand honor system. During corn season, especially, it was common to see a flat bed truck by the side of the road piled high with green husks. On a nearby table, you’d find a metal box with a slit on top and a padlock. Alongside it, a sign that might say “6 for $2, 12 for $3.75.”

You were expected to put your money in the box and take what you paid for. That was that.

I’ve always wondered what allowed for such a level of trust. Growing up in NYC, I sensed merchants feared all strangers, watching us kids with wary baleful eyes.

My friend, Elizabeth Graver, wrote a novel called The Honey Thief that if my


memory serves me right is about a young girl from New York City, a girl who steals things, whose mom moves her to a small rural community to help her deal with these and other issues. The girl encounters a person-less farmstand with honey for sale and only a lockbox for money. And she finds this inconceivably naive.

These honor-system farmstands – sometimes a rough-hewn wooden stand in a clearing, sometimes a cart on the farm itself, but always hand-lettered signs pointing out the zucchini or the tomatos or the corn – were and continue to be a revelation to me.

They work, it seems, because they are part of that community’s social compact. Like Radiohead making its music available for download via a pay-what-you-want system. (Ok, that’s actually a bad example.) Or like the MET commuter rail in Portland in which you’re expected to buy a ticket but you’re not asked to put it through a turnstile to gain entry to the train, or give it to anyone for that matter.

Which makes me wonder: what allows for this kind of trust to become an accepted part of a community? Clearly, the monetary loss must not be too great. But is it simply a financial calculus?

Living in Western Massachusetts, I knew I didn’t want to jeopardize this belief that we had the ability to do the right thing without need of a stick or a carrot or a mediator. That somehow we were all elevated by my simple act of slipping the appropriate number of bills through the slit in the top of the metal box.



Filed under slow food

2 responses to “trust

  1. I’ve also wondered about this too, having known punks in my life that would not miss an opportunity to take advantage of this trust. I’ve encountered this very thing in Santa Cruz at an Indian restaurant that simply asked you to leave what you thought the meal was worth, and I can definitely say they made a killing off me just based on my guilt…errr…I mean generosity. But yes, it’s this trust that elevates us. I’ve also seen this in musical groups where even if the sound isn’t quite right, the conductor says nothing, leaving it up to the musicians to correct their mistakes and I can honestly say the entire group performed beyond what they thought was capable. All without any scolding or dirty looks or the throwing of a baton. Of course this has worked conversely. I’ve had conductors that threaten you with replacement if you crack such-and-such a note and overall, the sound of the group was thin and timid. Great topic POH.

  2. Pingback: the commons « dComposing

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