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.
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.