PALERMO, Maine — Small, unmanned farm stands dot the state of Maine, stocked in the growing season with fresh-picked produce and a cash box.
The farmers and gardeners who fill these farm stands generally use the age-old honor system to take care of business. In general, that means that the farmers depend on the honesty of their customers to choose vegetables, count up the cost and leave the right amount of money in the lockbox or jar there.
But what happens if not everyone follows the rules of the honor system?
For some farmers, operating a farm stand has meant losing money and produce to theft and gaining discouraging insights about humanity. Some have found other ways to do business altogether, including Micah Kelly, who runs Wet Cellar Farm on Jones Road in Palermo. For years, Kelly filled the farm stand at the intersection of his road and Route 3 with the fruits of his labors, including neatly-arranged baskets of garlic scapes and rhubarb, piles of plump red tomatoes and containers of fresh green peas.
No more. This summer, for the first time in a long time, the stand is empty. The lockbox that remains welded to the building a visual reminder of both his hard work and his disappointment at being robbed over and over again by vegetable-loving thieves.
“I’d stock the stand with $100 of produce in the morning and at the end of the day there’d be $2 in the lockbox,” he said. “This would go on day after day … We tried everything. We had framed pictures of my kids, and a sign that said we depend on this money to feed our kids. Please don’t steal.”
But nothing worked. Instead, Kelly saw unwanted glimpses of the darker side of human nature. The game camera he installed caught pictures of a woman wearing a bathing suit who would come day after day to the stand, filling big bags with produce: ten or 12 quarts of peas, six to eight pounds of beets. And she would leave just a dollar or two behind. There was the man who would apparently wait for him to bring in bunches of beets with the greens attached, and then steal only the greens, leaving the beets behind. There were the people who stole not only the rhubarb and the garlic scapes, but also the baskets he had placed them in. Disturbingly, one thief saw the sign that said “smile, you’re on camera,” look at the camera then unzipped his fly and urinated right in the middle of the farm stand.
“People are just incredible,” he said.
Unfortunately, the police he contacted couldn’t do anything unless he caught people stealing “red-handed” on camera, and so he had to make a hard choice — to shut down his stand entirely.
Honor system breakdown
Kelly has had enough, switching his business model from the farm stand to a small community supported agriculture, or CSA share. Customers pay him in the spring and he provides them with a weekly supply of vegetables throughout the season. It’s meant that he has to adhere to more of a schedule than he did before, but it’s worth it. These customers actually pay him for his work.
“It’s just all around a bummer,” the farmer said of the thefts. “It’s a long process to get the food to here — it doesn’t just come on a truck.”
All across Maine, farmers have anecdotes about thefts from their farm stands. Some find that money is the primary object sought and some struggle with theft of vegetables, eggs and other goods. Most have had to resort to modern technology such as game cameras or other cameras to be a deterrent or to try and catch the thieves after the fact, but even then, it’s hard to stop, they say, wondering if Mainers are no longer honorable enough for the honor system.
And although charges have been successfully brought on occasion against people who steal from farm stands — police in Aroostook County recently charged three people with multiple counts of theft from area farm stands — it’s a challenging crime to prosecute. Farmers can feel like they are largely on their own.
Anthony Gray, an ethicist with the Institute for Global Ethics, a non-profit organization founded in Camden and now based in Madison, Wisconsin, said that the farm stand thefts are a perfect example of how important ethics is to modern society. The thefts also show how complex the consequences are when a “mutual ethical framework” breaks down, he said.
“People have always struggled with doing the right thing,” he said. “And when an honor system like this one gets consistently taken advantage of, the people harmed by that dishonesty are the ones who bear the additional burden of deciding whether to continue openly offering their goods for purchase.”
He said that most people have dealt with similar temptations, citing the example of children whose neighbors would put out a bucket of candy, perhaps on Halloween, with a sign telling trick-or-treaters to take one or maybe two.
“Nothing would happen if you took more, of course, but still, most of us only took one or maybe two,” Gray said. “That instinct, to behave ethically even in the absence of direct consequence, is what seems to have broken down in this situation.”
For Emilia Carbone of 3 Bug Farm in Lincolnville, where they tried the honor system and found that it didn’t work, the idea of stealing cash from family farmers is pretty discouraging.
“If someone’s really so hungry that they needed vegetables, than by all means. I’d understand hunger,” she said. “But now we’re in a situation where we can’t even leave change out for people. It makes you sad for humanity … they’re stealing from our family business.”
Cindy Reynolds, who sells eggs at a stand on the dirt road near her home in Wiscasset, said that she has a hard time understanding the mentality of people who steal from her farm stand.
“I don’t know why people feel they need to get away with something like that,” she said. “We don’t want to stop the honor system because I truly believe in it.”
But it’s challenging to do when other people don’t, she said. Last week, somebody stopped and took a dozen eggs and two goose eggs, which Reynolds values at $4.50. They left just $1.50. Others have eschewed the eggs entirely, stealing only the money from the can she uses as a cash box. Everyone isn’t the problem, she said. One woman wrote a note asking if Reynolds was okay with the barter system and left a jar of homemade relish in exchange for some eggs.
“That was perfectly okay,” Reynolds said, adding that the thefts are not. “It makes you wonder if if this is really what I want to do. Do I want to keep on giving eggs away? … I just cannot get discouraged. I tell myself, well, they need it more than I do. And if nothing else, karma will get them.”
Technology can help
Last week, a thief hit several farm stands in Waldo County, including the busy stand at the Bahner Farm on Route 3 in Belmont. For Christa Bahner, the thefts, which happened three days in a row, felt all too familiar. A couple of summers ago, she and her husband, Mike, were robbed repeatedly, with the thief or thieves making away with “multiple thousands” of dollars. They ended up closing their stand for a couple of days so they could try to solve the problem and installed a fancy new camera, which took pictures of the thieves. Their identity was shocking to the Bahners.
“We knew them as friendly customers, always asking for recipe ideas,” Christa Bahner said.
Ultimately, police were able to press charges against one of those thieves, who had to pay some money in restitution to the farmers. This year, the Bahners are working with the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office to try and identify the man they believe stole $450 in one week.
“The money they took is definitely upsetting,” Christa Bahner said. “But the biggest thing is that I don’t really trust anyone anymore.”
Still, far more people do not steal from their farm stand than do, she said.
“Someone wrote a note that said, ‘I threw in an extra $20 to help make up for those jerks,’” she said.
Next summer the farmers are planning to do something different with their farm stand: staff it. That will help them to accept credit cards and SNAP vouchers, and hopefully also will cut down on the amount of brazen theft.
“For the most part, I’m really impressed with the fact that more people don’t take money, because it is tempting,” Christa Bahner said.
Tom Albee of Albee Farming in Alna is 78 years old and runs his farm to stay busy and make a little money. He supplied the neighbors with organic vegetables at his unmanned farm stand until the fall of 2014, when he had enough of the thefts of both produce and money.
“It was getting pretty bad,” he said.
For two years, the farmstand was closed. But his community missed it and encouraged him to reopen. They gave him advice about security and cameras and this year, he took a chance and reopened it four days a week.
“So far, it’s worked out,” Albee said. “I’d like to open it up full time next year if everything goes well. We’ll see what happens. Right now, I’m getting the community support that I was looking for, and that’s the best part.”