by Julia Van Soelen Kim, UCCE Food Systems Advisor
Being trusted seems to be a rare occurrence in our daily lives. Yet at farm stands across Marin County – tucked into sunny pockets of quiet neighborhoods, placed as pleasant surprises along winding roads, and set as impromptu tables in barns – honor systems are working well, building trust, and fostering a sense of community among the farmers who stock them and the shoppers who frequent them.
Gospel Flat, an honor system farm stand
Honor system farm stands are where local farmers sell just-picked fruits and vegetables and freshly collected eggs right on their farms via a self-service, 24 hours a day, and seven days a week business model. The basic setup is the same. The farmer regularly stocks the stand to keep the inventory fresh and customers seek out the farm stand for the high quality of the products, the farm experience, and the unique sense of trust that comes from participating in an honor system. Customers arrive and serve themselves, gather what they want, weigh their produce on a scale, record what they select in a notebook, tally up the total, and place money in a collection box. At a few of the stands, shoppers are trusted to make their own change, but at most of the stands, customers deposit their money through a secure drop chute into a locked cash box. At all of the stands, the record book holds notes of gratitude to the farmer along with “I owe you,” “You owe me,” “I’ll be right back,” or “I’ll pay later.”
This spring and early summer, I visited several of these little-known honor system farm stands in Marin County to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of this unique business model and to understand what goes into making these stands a success.
I visited a local farmer at her peri-urban Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, where she retold the story of the farm’s honor system. “We put it out simply because both of us farmers work off the farm. We originally had specific hours that the farm was open, but that was inconvenient for everyone – us most of all.” She explained that moving to the honor system “was a practical choice, but some years ago when some teenagers, trying out the punk life, stole the money from the box, twice, we put out an email to our membership saying that we might not be able to keep the cashbox system. To our surprise we got sixty-some-odd responses from members echoing the same idea: the farm is a rare place of trust, and the sense upon entering is unusually expansive.”
Local farmer tells visitors about her Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm stand
Kitty Dolcini at her egg stand
Next, I visited an informal honor system egg stand in the breezeway of an old milking barn at Dolcini’s Red Hill Ranch, a fifth generation family farm located in Hicks Valley. There, an impromptu table with a red and white checked tablecloth holds an ice box filled with freshly collected, pastured eggs provided by farmer Kitty Dolcini of Chicken City by Kitty. Over a cup of tea in her kitchen, Kitty explained the origins of her business’s name, inspired by the image of her mismatched mobile chicken coops that “looked like a little town in the middle of the pasture.” After gaining co-ownership of the farm with her brother, and looking for her unique contribution to the family business, Kitty initially set up a staffed farm stand down by the road, before moving it to the dairy barn. However, she quickly found that she lost money on it because “it just didn’t pencil out to pay someone to be there.” That is when she switched to the honor system egg stand, and she is quite happy with it because “It’s right here; it doesn’t cost me loading time, gas, staffing time at the market, a stall fee… it’s a huge benefit to just walk down to the barn.” Kitty explained that she has a lot of regular customers who come from town to her farm specifically for the high quality pastured eggs, along with the farm experience.
Arron Wilder at his farm stand
Arron Wilder of Table Top Farm
in Point Reyes Station is a first generation farmer with a passion for building community through food and farming. He farms a patchwork of small vegetable plots in and around Point Reyes Station and has a farm stand at one of the plots and a second stand at the Commons in Point Reyes Station. Both are compact and thoughtfully designed open-air huts that provide shade for the attractive presentation of fresh produce that Arron sets out in baskets and Mason jars of water. Both of Arron’s stands feature creative details that highlight his interest in local food, farming, and artistic expression. He explained how he got started with his honor system farm stands, “At first, I just wanted a place for people to pick up their CSA boxes, but then the first season of the CSA didn’t work out because of weather, so I told all of the CSA members to just come to the farm to pick up whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.” Now he sees that there are great benefits to the model: “If I could do it only by honor system, I would. I don’t have to box things, I don’t have to drive to the market or do deliveries, and I don’t have to market the produce, so it results in more time for farming. It’s a real streamlined way of getting the veggies to the people who want them.”
Sign at Gospel Flat Farm
I also visited Gospel Flat Farm
in Bolinas and talked with farmer Mickey Murch who took a moment away from farming to sit with me at a shady picnic table overlooking the farm and his children playing in the yard. He considers his farm stand a 24/7 honor system vegetable market and describes it as a “permanent food-art installation.” He was initially inspired to do the honor system farm stand as a way to bring the community onto the farm and as an alternative to the wholesale business model that his father had used.
Gospel Flat Farm in Bolinas
He explained, “My bottom line goal was not to deliver produce. This [farm] landscape is worth so much in terms of community connection, and that is something that is lost in wholesale.” But after selling produce as part of the educational experience on the farm, he realized “you can’t let the farm stand shrivel up. It needs to be dependable. That was the click for me… realizing that the farm stand being well-stocked should be the number one priority on the farm. That was the beginning of an incredible journey.” Today, the farm stand is the most robust of the honor system farm stands I visited in Marin, with multi-tier shelves continuously stocked throughout the day, seven days a week, with freshly harvested vegetables, fresh fruit, and eggs. The farm stand is an open air veranda in front of one of the farm’s historic buildings that serves as a community space and art gallery. The farm stand has many artistic features including homemade welded signs and a metal drop box for payments modeled after a library book drop.
Hands Full Farm
Finally, I visited Anna Erickson of Hands Full Farm
, a small pastured poultry operation near Valley Ford. We strolled down the driveway to take a look at the stand, before going to the windy rolling pasture to check out her flock of free-range chickens. In addition to selling eggs at the Civic Center Farmers Market, Anna has an honor system egg box on her farm. Reminiscent of a large mailbox, the setup includes a shingled wooden enclosure for an ice box filled with farm fresh eggs, along with a secure drop box for payments. She collects the money and fills the ice box daily, and sometimes twice a day on busy weekends when warm summer weather bring bicyclists and throngs of tourists passing by her farm’s driveway.
For these farmers, their honor system farm stands fit into their business models in slightly different ways: Arron sells through a diversity of outlets, including his two farm stands, and finds security within this diversity; Kitty and Anna use the egg stands as a convenient supplemental market to complement their primary farmer’s market channels; and Mickey sells his produce almost exclusively at his farm stand.
Each of the farmers seemed cautiously optimistic about the future of their farm stands, but they must actively work to maintain trust. Anna explained, “The pros are that it makes people feel happy and special that you trust them. It’s a positive, nurturing thing, and feels appropriate. But the cons are that there will always be people who try to steal your money, and they will try really, really hard.”
Mickey explained how he has learned to deal with the mental questioning that comes with having an honor system farm stand: “It’s been a process of letting go of judgment and forgetting about individual business transactions.” He prefers to simply count up the produce sold and the labor used over the course of a season and then evaluate whether there is a better way to do business. He reflected, “If I did an inventory every day, I would really worry about the whole system eroding. We don’t use security cameras and there is no one there [staffing the farm stand] because people get this feeling of a real-life honor system. I think we actually gain more customers by having this system.”
Similarly, one of the farmers explained to me that at one point, she had heard so many warnings about trusting people that she finally added up the produce bought and found that there was more money left in the box than required for payment of the vegetables. In fact, each farmer echoed variations of the same findings - that the system works because there tends to be enough money over time to cover any losses from the incidental theft of products or cash on any given day.
Record book at Gospel Flat Farm
Overwhelmingly, they have found that their customers respond to their honor system farm stands with trustworthiness and appreciation. Arron explained, “Socially, people respond in a really positive way. They are being trusted and it is a community project.” Ben, an employee and loyal customer of Table Top Farm added that he was a customer first, before he was a worker: “I liked being able to see the vegetables grown by people I know, and I liked that I was trusted. It seemed like the farm stand was part of the values I wanted to support in the world.” At Gospel Flat Farm Stand, a customer echoed a similar sentiment, “I think it’s wonderful to be in a community that can be honored 24 hours a day.” Later, another shopper explained, “I shopped here as a single mom, and I had no money, so now I always pay over. It is socialist veggies. I think it’s amazing; it shows a culture of integrity.” Her spouse chuckled from the car, adding, “We drove by and she made me turn around and come back.”