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Unmanned farm stand thrives on the honor system

Unmanned farm stand thrives on the honor system

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WASHINGTON, Mo. • At Todd Geisert's farm stand on Old Highway 100, a black metal box sits near rows of fresh vegetables and a freezer full of bratwurst and pork burgers.

Brightly painted signs lure customers in. Autumnal gourds camp on the grassy edges by the road.

All that's missing from the otherwise typical Midwestern scene is the farmer.

The stand operates strictly self-serve, on the honor system. The black box takes in about the right amount of money every day — and in the high five figures annually, well exceeding the income of a median household.

"You'd be amazed what goes through here every day," says Geisert, who shies from exact figures for publication. "There's nobody I know of who does this much volume on the honor system."

A fourth-generation farmer, Geisert had a welding business in town for about a decade before deciding he'd give the family trade a try after all — only he'd do it his way. Rather than growing just commodity crops — corn and soy — he decided he would also grow and sell 'specialty crops" (otherwise known as vegetables).

So he built a farm stand.

In the first few years, a can with a slit in the top served as the cash register. Now Geisert has replaced the can with the welded black box, bearing the words "Money Can" and a smiley face.

He leaves the produce out all night, so the money can is always in business — and business is good. "My biggest problem is the barn cats," he says, referring to his most persistent thieves.

The stand rests in a gentle dip along the road across from Geisert's grandparents' house, which sits on a bluff above the Missouri River. In the fields behind the stand, hundreds of pigs roam in the open air and litters of piglets swoop down hillsides. It's an appealingly bucolic picture, but that's not why customers keep returning, they say. The honor system may in fact make Geisert more money than if he spent all day watching over his stand.

"We come once a week," said Cindy Howard, visiting the farm stand recently with her grandchildren. "They trust us, and we were amazed. It made us think we want to come here. They trust us, so we trust them."

Demand for fresh, locally grown produce has shot up in recent years, as more consumers want to connect with the source of their food. The number of farmers markets nationwide has almost tripled in the last decade. At Geisert's farm, the provenance of the food is clear — and that might be driving business, too. Yet the farm stand set-up seems to offer a distinct advantage for some shoppers.

"They get the fresh produce without any pressure. Nobody's saying: You need to try this or do this," says Mary Beth Rettke, the director of tourism for Washington. "It has the feel of a farmers market, but without the vendor."

The lack of customer service confused people at first. When Geisert opened the farm stand five seasons ago, passers-by wouldn't stop, he says, because they didn't see a person around and figured it wasn't open.

"The hardest thing to get people to understand is that there's no one here," Geisert says, a faded baseball cap shading his face. "The hardest thing is to get people to understand how to do it themselves."

Geisert has tried to make it easy. Vegetables and meats are mostly priced in dollar increments and prices are written out on a dry-erase board. A scale hangs from the stand's roof, for weighing vegetables, and scrap paper sits on the counter for adding up totals.

"The first time I saw this place and the honor system, I just couldn't believe it," says Mary Price, a Washington resident who stops by the stand all the time. "I needed help."

Eventually shoppers figured it out — though some thieves did, too.

Last year, in the week leading to Easter Sunday, thieves hit the stand six times, stealing cash from the can. "Someone heard there was good money on the Old Highway," Geisert says. "Probably drug people."

So he welded the money can, stuck a big padlock on it and installed a camera last fall. That, he says, has stopped the thefts. "The only problem since then was a bunch of kids stealing eggs and egging buildings in town," he says.

Otherwise, the count from the black box comes out about right. Shoppers will occasionally take a few things when they don't have cash, then come back to deposit the money later. Some shoppers put more cash in the money can, just to cover for people who might come up short.

"I always give a little extra," Price says.

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