Honor System Farm Stands

Many roadside farm stands in the U.S. are unstaffed. They work on the honor system: take what you want, and pay what you owe.

And today at his farm stand, Cochran says, just as at the donut shop years ago, most customers leave more money than they owe.

That doesn’t surprise social psychologist Michael Cunningham of the University of Louisville who has used “trust games” to investigate what spurs good and bad behavior for the last 25 years. For many people, Cunningham says, trust seems to be at least as strong a motivator as guilt. He thinks he knows why.

“When you sell me something I want and trust me to pay you even when you’re not looking, you’ve made my life good in two ways,” Cunningham tells The Salt. “I get something delicious, and I also get a good feeling about myself. Both of those things make me feel good about the world­ that I’m in a good place. And I also see you as a contributor to that good ­ as somebody I want to reward. It’s a win win.”

I like systems that leverage personal moral codes for security. But I’ll bet that the pay boxes are bolted to the tables. It’s one thing for someone to take produce without paying. It’s quite another for him to take the entire day’s receipts.

Posted on June 18, 2012 at 6:40 AM45 Comments


Catherine June 18, 2012 7:06 AM

I’ve seen the same thing many times in rural areas in Denmark. You’re right about the cash boxes – the ones I saw were chained to the stand. Easy to take and spend money; much harder to take and spend 15 kilos of potatoes.

Nicholas Weaver June 18, 2012 7:17 AM

Yeah. Pay boxes are inevitably bolted down and locked.

There is also the pay-box design factor that can up the amount someone pays. The eggs may be $6/dozen, the lettuce $1/head, the tomatoes $3/lb, but the buyer has only a $20….

Chris June 18, 2012 7:26 AM

I don’t think the stand where we get our produce has the box bolted down. If it is then it’s bolted to something very easy to take off the wall. Normally we do Community Share Agriculture (pay up front, pick up produce through the season) so we don’t normally do leave money. I do know I’ve seen money out for people to make change though.

Our church did a yard sale recently as a fundraiser and had everything but some really large items by donation. There were some people that took an armload of stuff for a quarter but I’ve heard most people paid more than we would have priced the items.

Paeniteo June 18, 2012 7:42 AM

@Nicholas: “There is also the pay-box design factor that can up the amount someone pays. The eggs may be $6/dozen, the lettuce $1/head, the tomatoes $3/lb, but the buyer has only a $20….”

Well, in this system, the buyer may simply consider himself to be a creditor until his next purchase.
E.g., pay $20 today when only $14 are due. Take another dozen eggs when you need them next, week without paying again.

aaytch June 18, 2012 7:56 AM

It’s odd, in the light of this observation about farm stands, that the shareware model of software development does not work for most people.

NobodySpecial June 18, 2012 8:15 AM

@aaytech – the shareware model is coming back for web page donations AND can be effective. And just like farm fruit stands there are tricks to keep people honest.

Don’t have the article to hand, but pictures wife+kid and explanation that this is now your only job and a personalised thank you email when you do donate are said to really up conversion rates

boba June 18, 2012 8:15 AM

A variation of this happens in NYC. The stands are manned 24/7. However, I have found myself waiting 5-10 minutes for the guy to return from either getting his lunch or returning from the restroom. As many noted, no one ever steals the fruits or vegetables even though walking off with a box of mangoes would be quite easy.

Sean Dague June 18, 2012 8:18 AM

A lot of the ones I use have a cash box out, so you can make your own change. It’s not just a slot to put stuff in.

Community trust is a powerful force.

AlanS June 18, 2012 8:24 AM

I have seen lots of stands where the “pay box” is just a box with a lid and not bolted down. Sometimes it might just be a basket with a stone in the middle to hold everything down. If you only have a 20 and need change, it’s there. My guess is that the owner comes out every so often, takes out the big notes and leaves some singles and fives.

ENKI-2 June 18, 2012 8:37 AM

I wonder how much we can trust this 25% metric given in the original article…

Could we trust it enough to construct a system that builds the cost of a quarter of actors wanting to steal the cash box into the prices? Would that then change how many people act honestly (given that rigging the game that way would raise prices and possibly make the customers feel less trusted)?

Evan June 18, 2012 9:01 AM

When I lived in Iowa, my parents visited from NY. We stopped at a farmers corn stand which was an old pickup with corn in the back and a bucket for the cash.

My mom commented that back in NY, the corn and cash would obviously be gone AND the truck would be stripped down to the frame.

Michael Brady June 18, 2012 9:16 AM

@ Bruce

“It’s one thing for someone to take produce without paying. It’s quite another for him to take the entire day’s receipts.”

The fruit and vege are left out because the vast majority of people are trustworthy. The paybox is anchored because a small fraction are not. I do wonder if the thieves are operating on different axis or if they’re on the same continuum with the “pay too muchers” and driveoffs? Guess I need to hurry up and read your latest book.

Figureitout June 18, 2012 9:43 AM

Maybe you could set up your stand by a DOT traffic cam. Maybe you could set up your stand where there is always more than 1 person there, keeping each other in check. I recently bought some seeds from a place with a cop at the register. I’ve never seen an unmanned stand though, interesting they still exist.

This is good though, people doing business with each other; produce always tastes better bought at a local stand. If more and more people grew their own crops it would be one less reason to go to Walmart…

Harry June 18, 2012 10:15 AM

All over North America I’ve seen small roadstands – even ones with high value items such as honey – unstaffed but never what I’d call actual markets. Interesting how size makes a difference.

Cheating at the former feels like stealing from an individual; at the latter like stealing from an inpersonal business.

Grymoire June 18, 2012 10:38 AM

“It’s quite another for him to take the entire day’s receipts.”

Solution: every hour or two remove all of the big bills. Many stores do this. Some midnight gas stations warn that they cannot change big bills after midnight. Cashiers often put $50 bills under the bill tray to make it harder to grab and run.

J June 18, 2012 10:43 AM


I grew up in upstate NY, and we saw similar stands all the time. Can’t speak for the city, of course.

dragonfrog June 18, 2012 11:29 AM

I visited a village in the Dominican Republic a while ago, and there was a suspension bridge over the river there that was very much a community effort – it was terrifying for me even to walk over it, but the locals rode motorcycles over it.

The cash box for donations to maintain the bridge was just a coffee can nailed to a post – it didn’t even have a lid with a slot cut in it, to prevent the weak from being tempted by the sight of the money. Apparently it worked well enough for the community that any losses were less than the cost of a lock-box.

JP June 18, 2012 12:15 PM

I used to own a piece of a business that was the honor pay snacks. The overall pay rate was about 80% and that was worked into the price.

Small businesses had better pay rates. Locations accessible by employees only were far better than those accessible by customers. Finally, the compliance rates were consistent at a business. Locations with a thief or vandal were consistent and quickly pulled.

Demonstrates that trust is a community thing. Trust also is based on leadership. Employee only sites generally had a leader. Publicly accessible sites had no real leader to set the tone and therefore depended on perception of being watched. City locations often had often could be trusted less than the small town even in the same business type and size.

Smaller social groups, communities with leadership, and smaller towns respond better to trust. Makes sense as social pressure, leadership, and smaller systems are more conducive to a trust based system.

TS June 18, 2012 12:18 PM

“As many noted, no one ever steals the fruits or vegetables even though walking off with a box of mangoes would be quite easy.”

I bet before you got 5 steps away, half the people on the line would have taken your picture with their smartphones. Even if you got away, your picture would be plastered across FB and the twitverse, as well as making the nightly news; about how the web assisted a local businessman catch a thief.

So yes, it might be easy to steal, but it’s hard to get away with it when there are so many witnesses.

vasiliy pupkin June 18, 2012 12:22 PM

My attention in the article was caught by the last statement of Barb Clerici regarding mutual trust. I guess not only trust, but respect and commitment are two-way streets as well.

Steve K June 18, 2012 1:15 PM

Out here where I live (in rural Pennsylvania) the cash is kept in a cigar box. Pay what you owe, make change.

The stand we’ve been going to has been there for years.

Another one opened last year that’s quite a bit closer. I stopped there one morning and the owner couldn’t change a $20, so I said “how about I stop in later when I head out again to pay you?” Her response was that I should come back later with money and I could shop then. I hope she’s not still waiting for me. (So far, they didn’t reopen this year).

Trust has to be reciprocal.

John E. Bredehoft June 18, 2012 1:16 PM

I am not a psychologist or sociologist, but the ideas of “trust” and “community” expressed in the comments above are key. If I am emotionally invested in the future of a business, such as a bakery near my university or one or my favorite websites, I will be more inclined to do the right thing. If I am indifferent or emotionally antagonistic to the business (perhaps the person behind the counter was rude to me, or I don’t like his/her shirt), then (if I’m not within the 25% who are always honest) I might be more inclined to stiff the business.

It would be extremely difficult to scale this to larger populations. Even if all TSA employees were the most wonderful people on earth, I suspect that they would still need to be vigilant.

Vadim G. June 18, 2012 1:36 PM

I remember being fascinated by the idea of a roadside farm stand a number of years ago, when I was traveling in upstate NY (my first rural-area outing in the US).

Though I’m not 100% sure of this (15+ years have passed), I seem to remember there being a simple bowl for cash, rather than a locked-down box.

The entire concept was utterly alien and mind-boggling then — that people would trust others not to take advantage of either the free produce or the money. I’m sure that in many other places, the fruit, the cash, the bowls, and the stand itself would be gone within hours (I’m originally from the USSR, where such a thing surely wouldn’t fly :).

(I still find it generally mind-boggling, though noticeably less so; I’m now willing to admit that it can actually work :).

Kevin June 18, 2012 2:28 PM

I once filled out an online form to order an item from a store in another country. To my surprise, it arrived in my mailbox a couple weeks later, without having paid at all! Of course I quickly got in touch and sent payment, but I don’t think they could’ve enforced that. I guess there are a lot of trust relationships in that industry?

Paeniteo June 18, 2012 4:02 PM

@Vadim: “I’m originally from the USSR, where such a thing surely wouldn’t fly”

Weird (or not?! ;-), that such a concept should work in capitalism but not in communism.

peter c June 18, 2012 6:12 PM

I recall in Auckland, NZ the newpaper vending machines were on the honor system, with a stack of newspapers in an unlocked container and an (attached) box for payment. This was in the center of New Zealand’s largest city. Mind you, payment for the milkman was by sticking your payment into an empty milk bottle on your front porch. There must be cultural norms that allow this and that they vary both over time and place.

Alobar June 18, 2012 6:15 PM

I like systems that leverage personal moral codes for security. But I’ll bet that the pay boxes are bolted to the tables. It’s one thing for someone to take produce without paying. It’s quite another for him to take the entire day’s receipts.

That has not been my experience. When I was a kid back in the 1950s, my parents used to stop at farm stands on Long Island. When one of the stands was not attended, customers put their money into an open carton on the table.

Back in the 1980s I went to a 5 day Pagan/Magickal spiritual retreat (SPiRaL Festival) in a State Park in Georgia. There was a venue for people to sell their wares. The venue was open 24 hrs/day but was staffed less than 8. Again, there were open boxes on each of the tables. People reached into the boxes to make their own change.

One year, the lady running the retreat showed a bunch of park rangers around. The rangers were aghast. One of the rangers mentioned that during Christian retreats, nobody left money or goods on the tables when no staff was present.

Matt from CT June 18, 2012 8:35 PM


There are a number of honor stands in my area; there are also locations (within the same towns) they have long since disappeared from.

Those who do drop boxes, most are still the simple cigar box. Few are blind slot boxes.

The organic farm I buy my raw milk from (an act of considerable trust itself) has a cookie tin for the money; however it’s clear they regularly clear it down to a minimum enough to make change for a $20 or so. And while the milk and eggs are in an unlocked refrigerator, the meats are kept locked and you need to find someone if you’d like to purchase some.

Of the areas I’ve seen honor system boxes disappear from, and those that continue I’d postulate the difference is this:

Where the traffic is primarily by private automobile, the boxes are still around.

Where there is considerable foot and/or bike traffic by either teenagers or lower-income persons transiting from one village to another or from their homes to a store, the honor boxes have gone away over the years. (And meth head / heroin user / doper may be an even more accurate characterization then low-income; in my area if you’re over 18 and depend on a bicycle for transportation it’s likely there are substance abuse issues involved).

Yusuke June 18, 2012 8:43 PM

There are similar unmanned shops in Japan too. And no, they’re not a vending machine. They are typically seen in rural mountainous areas, and I love them because their products are generally better for its price. I also love them because of their low-techness.

Dave June 18, 2012 10:16 PM

Honesty boxes (which is what they’re called here) are relatively common. They’re typically just an open-topped box with money lying in it, easily accessible so you can take the appropriate change. I’ve seen ones with $100+ of cash sitting there in plain view.

Tim#3 June 19, 2012 4:12 AM

A secondary use of these is to identify where community trust may not be so strongly adhered to… I remember my friend’s mother having such a stall and box outside, and with the protection of net curtains she could monitor compliance discreetly. She knew exactly who could and who could not be trusted to pay for her goods…

Roger June 19, 2012 8:07 AM

It’s nice to get such a warm and friendly story, but … but … something doesn’t quite ring true.

It’s one thing to say that folks are mostly honest, but that isn’t what is happening here. The people using these stands are all honest. A few people may not pay the right price for their produce, or may snack on one piece of fruit without paying, BUT it takes just one single really dishonest person to totally ruin the system. And in most places that have these stands, that isn’t happening. There are no outright crooks. Zero.

Indeed, the article in NPR included links to several news stories about honour system stands being forced to shut down throughout entire districts. In a couple of cases there was some evidence that just one person was behind all the thefts throughout the district. That one person literally ruined it for everyone, and probably thought it was real funny, too.

Now it would be nice to suppose that thieves are so rare that some districts don’t have any at all, but that just isn’t true. Even the stands that see no theft, are visited by dozens to hundreds of random strangers and — unless there is some powerful filtering going on –we would expect that at least a half dozen of those were stone cold crooks.

So what’s the difference between the stands that get robbed, and those that don’t? Is it some kind of pre-filtering of customers (by location or produce?) that means no thieves even approach it? Is there some kind of subtle but powerful deterrent in place? Is there some feature of the stand that makes that “inner glow for being good” irresistable?

I don’t know. I have a few theories, but they are all speculation. But it might be very interesting, and even useful, to find out.

(By the way, we have these stands in Australia too, and they work pretty much the same way.)

Jonadab June 19, 2012 10:51 AM

I’ll bet that the pay boxes
are bolted to the tables.

It depends where you are. In rural areas sufficiently off the beaten track to not have much “through traffic” from outside the community, such measures are often unnecessary. Everybody knows everybody, which has a couple of consequences.

First, stealing from somebody you know pretty well personally (for most folks) invokes a higher level of moral conscience activity than stealing from a faceless business. This is a logically bizarre but well documented phenomenon.

Additionally, the social penalties for getting caught having done such a thing, in a small rural community, are rather more extreme than anything the legal justice system would do to you in a more urban environment. The phrase “persona non grata” barely scratches the surface. The perpetrator may suddenly find himself permanently estranged even from his immediate family, due to the shame he has brought upon them. Also, the burden of proof for these social consequences is rather lower than in a court of law.

Jonadab June 19, 2012 11:04 AM

The eggs may be $6/dozen, the lettuce
$1/head, the tomatoes $3/lb, but the
buyer has only a $20….”

Only having a twenty is a city phenomenon, arising from the pattern of going to the bank or ATM to get money, then going to the store and spending it, and the store deposits its day’s receipts at the bank again. Stores take twenties to the bank and get enough change for their drawers; private individuals take their paycheck to the bank and get twenties and fifties to spend. In rural areas, the pattern is somewhat different. Currency may change hands dozens or even hundreds of times between trips into town (depending on how far it is), so smaller bills are much more the norm. In extreme cases (like, remote parts of Alaska or Montana), personal checks may be informally treated as currency and passed around through many hands.

nycman June 19, 2012 1:00 PM

One problem with such unmanned retail systems is being accused of not paying when in fact you DID pay. Say if you didn’t like somebody you could start a rumor that he stole or didn’t pay at the farm cart.

Vadim G. June 19, 2012 2:00 PM


Weird (or not?! ;-), that such a concept should work in capitalism
but not in communism.
I have two responses to that:
1. Well, we’ve yet to see an example of communism in practice 😉
2. I don’t think this works in all capitalist societies. In a reasonably well-to-do area, sure — but that’s because the incentive/need to steal is not that strong. Would it work in poorer areas of the US? In Rio’s favelas? After a disaster of some sort? (e.g., post-Katrina New Orleans) I don’t think it would 🙂

Tom June 19, 2012 8:48 PM

Our CSA has the cashbox simply on the table and open so you can make your own change. They do sometimes post signs reminding people to pay and be honest, suggesting they end up getting less money than they expect on occasion.

I know that I worked somewhere with coffee you had to pay for and they often had to nag people to make sure to pay up.

I’m pretty sure what happened in both of these cases is that people made estimates in their head that ended up favoring themselves — for example, some people would just throw a twenty in the coffee jar and then figure they were covered for a while, but probably not accurately count up to twenty. If you’d asked them, I’d guess they’d say they were paying more than they owed and felt like good samaritans, but if you counted, it’s likely they actually weren’t. This is a phenomenon on a continuum with the idea that way more than half of people think they’re better than average drivers (or anything else, for that matter).

Lord Yarlble June 20, 2012 2:26 AM

Interesting point on the “twenty”, but think it could be remediated, even though I fear I may have at some point fit your description. Perhaps it originates from our present social situation in which we are seldom direct and even ‘full of beans’ with each other, living rather close to a virtual reality in too many cases….

Ari E-B June 20, 2012 1:12 PM

My experience with this is now about 2 decades old, but back in the 80s and 90s my family and I used to go camping in southern NJ and patronized those farm stands. The pay boxes were rarely locked down, and were often as simple as an empty 1 gallon milk jug.

Barbarian June 20, 2012 4:59 PM

Anyone have a google map of the farm stands? I am very hungry and could use some extra cash…

Cath of Canberra June 21, 2012 12:58 AM

At my workplace, which is a smallish public service office in a capital city, there’s a box of snacks – chips, chocolate etc – in the tea room with an honesty box attached. The money goes to a charity. It would be very easy to just take one and not pay, but personally I’d feel bad about cheating a charity. I imagine everyone else here feels the same, or else it just wouldn’t work.

Dyolf_Knip June 24, 2012 8:46 PM

We moved to a small town last year (pop 13,000), and it still throws us for a loop sometimes.

I wanted to get our kitchen knives sharpened, and the only guy I could find who did it (on the side) had normal work hours such that I couldn’t meet him. So he said he’d leave his office unlocked and I should just drop the knives off after hours. When he was done, he’d leave them there and I’d just go pick them up and drop off a check.

I lost my camcorder at a dance, and a week later a complete stranger at the local gym looks at me and asks if I’d misplaced mine. He didn’t recognize me, but rather my two-year old daughter I had with me at the time and who features in most of the videos.

It really is a matter of the Bacon number for everyone dropping to 1 or 2. I randomly ran into more people I knew in the first 2 weeks here than I did in 10 years living in Tampa. It’s hard to convey just what an amazing effect it has.

Tom Cooke October 19, 2012 6:39 AM

We Have a small Farm stand in Lubec Maine that uses the Honor Pay method, I have a wireless camera that records the vehicles licence plate numbers and customers faces. The camera is mounted in plain site. I have never been shorted on a sale, and if anything been paid extra. I also have various free samples daily. All of my items are placed on a Old farm wagon and are pulled inside the farm gate at night to replenish the stock and check for freshness.

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