Long before there was the express lane and self-checkout at the grocery store, there was the self-service farm stand.
You've no doubt stopped at a place like this: You pull off the road, seduced by a sign with an arrow that says ASPARAGUS -- or sweet corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, potatoes, eggs, honey... or all of the above. You look around for someone, then walk to the table or into a small shed or makeshift store, and find a notepad, pen, adding machine and cash box.
This is what is known as The Honor System, and it's a time-honored tradition: The farmer trusts us, the customers, to do the math, make change and deposit the money in the box, in exchange for the farm-fresh goods.
In this fast-paced, digital age, when people commonly pay for purchases by a swipe of their credit or debit card or by using their smartphone, The Honor System is a quaint reminder of days gone by.
In addition to being a charming slice of Americana, The Honor System allows farmers to work in the field or in the kitchen rather than mind the store, which is usually open all day, every day.
Most of the time, The Honor System is a system that works well for all parties. But, as with anything else, there can be bad apples that threaten to topple the cart.
A farmer in Madison County told me she has had an occasional problem with marauding youth squeezing tomatoes and doing minor damage to her merchandise and displays.
She is quick to add that she has never had a problem with money -- or, more specifically, with money being stolen. In fact, she says, it often happens that people over-pay -- and leave a note with instructions to keep the extra or to consider it a pre-payment for their next visit.
Some farmers, as you can see, have installed cameras so The Honor System isn't dishonored.
Another farm whose stand I frequent installed a camera system for a short time last year after both produce and money in the cash box was stolen more than once.
"To our most valued customers,'' a sign read. "Due to a few people who don't understand what we're trying to do here... We're sorry to have to record you... Thank you for your honesty.''
The cameras have not been in use this year. The Honor System tradition carries on, even when trust has been breached.
Said a friend who visits that stand regularly: "Folks who are farm stand thieves should be sentenced to community service and work on a farm.''