Considering Your Honor Code—Using Strawberries, Eggs, and Pumpkins

Imagine you select a cart full of items at your favorite grocery store, and at the checkout counter you find only a list of prices and a slotted box where you deposit your pay—using the honor system. Now comes the moral decision: carefully calculate the total to the penny; round it off, maybe even paying a bit over at times; or underpay and walk out ignoring your nagging conscience that is whispering in your ear.
Big food chains might not last long with this arrangement, but some ag-related enterprises still use the honor system—and the good news is, it seems to work. A shining example of this comes from California where the Swanton Berry Farm has been trusting customers to do the right thing for years. Famed for its ocean view, organic strawberries, and jam-covered scones, the food stand’s main attraction might be the old-style payment system. According to the founder, Jim Cochran, many people leave more money than they owe.
Such a code has probably been around for centuries. Dad points out that during the first half of the 1900s, some farmers in the Midwest provided gasoline at the front of their property so drivers could use the hand pumps to fill their Model T’s or International Harvester Pickups. The farmer might be off milking or plowing, and the customer would figure the bill and deposit money in the lock box or coffee can. A few of these original country “come and go’s” might also sell Orange Crush, Baby Ruth bars, and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
By the late 60s, our small hometown featured Pooch’s gas station and his haphazard mixture of fuzzy math and idealistic self-checkout. His old barn-like service garage had become a magnet for youngsters with cars—a type of American Graffiti teen center offering pump-your-own gas and a wobbly hoist to do auto repairs. The pop machine sat nestled between Penz Oil cans and cases of Coke bottles, and the key was in the machine door. The counter at the front became the open cash register where coins and bills would eventually pile up. Usually on Fridays, Pooch would say something like, “We’re $2.75 short this week, boys.”  The guys would chip in to cover for some cheapskate, and the fiscal cycle would start over again. Pooch didn’t make much money with his business practices, but he deposited plenty of goodwill in town.
Obviously, the honor system doesn’t always work. Research shows that Americans are about evenly split regarding the number of people who are honest and those who take advantage of the system. Many say the world’s moral climate is going through a big chill, but examples of the country food stand are probably evident around the world. During the years we lived in Japan, my wife and I could walk Tokyo side streets during harvest time and find self-pay stalls stocked with sweet potatoes, fresh ginger, and turnip-like daikons. Now that we’re living in Iowa again, we might pass an occasional sweet corn stall or pumpkin patch that still uses the honor system.
Eventually, someone comes along and uses the dishonor system. But as the owner of a fresh produce and egg stall in California’s Napa Valley says, “A lot of people leave more than we request, along with notes that say they really value what we’re doing here. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive.”  by dan gogerty (photo from

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