The Honor System

Scattered among the sprawling farms and flourishing gardens of Ohio’s Amish Country are roadside businesses that still use the honor system. It’s not surprising in a community rooted deep in traditional values. “We use the honor system, because it works,” a young Amish man tells me at his family’s produce business. “It’s nice for locals to come pick up things, and they can just put their money in.” But it’s not only locals who patronize the business’s produce stand along a quiet country road. Visitors from nearby cities have stumbled upon it. When they first see the cash box, “they are amazed,” the young man says. “They say they could never do this where they come from. Some don’t even put their money in the container, because they are afraid someone will take their money.” While other roadside businesses in the area have switched to lock and key, this one chooses a plastic container with a removable lid. “I think people are more apt to not take the money when it’s ‘free for all,’” the young man says. About ten miles away, along a busier country road, I pull up to what locals call “the egg barn.” Two bicycles stand outside as an Amish mother and daughter disappear into the little red barn. Locals and tourists alike stop to buy eggs whether the Amish family is home or not. Customers take eggs out of a gas refrigerator and then drop their money into a metal deposit box fastened to the wall. “If they don’t have the correct change or give too much, we tell them to keep track,” the Amish farmer’s wife tells me. “Or if they don’t have the money with them, they put in a note and say what they took and that they will pay for it later.” She dries her hands on her apron. They’re sudsy from scrubbing the family’s buggy outside the white bank barn. Using the honor system is a time saver for this busy farming family. “It would take a lot of time to wait on customers,” she says. “The customers like it so much, and we do too.” She tells me they don’t know half the people who stop. Some are visitors to the area who see the self-serve sign and stop by. And “once they were here one time, they want to come again.” After a series of thefts, the family switched their cash box to lock and key. But they continue to believe that “there are a lot more honest people in the world than dishonest.” “We were always taught to be honest and to trust people,” says the Mennonite owner of a nearby shavings company who uses the honor system for customers who pick up bales of animal bedding any time of the day or night. Customers deposit their money into a metal box attached to a beam of the pole building outside the owners’ home. A larger business, the owners use a surveillance camera, but mostly they rely on trust. “We don’t watch it that close,” they say. “We don’t have time.” They use the video when there is repeated signs of shavings being stolen and then confront a customer or, when the offense is ongoing, report it to the authorities. The Amish and Mennonite community, though reminiscent of a simpler, gentler time, is not untouched by the realities of a harsher world. Many businesses have stopped using the honor system because of increasing theft from outsiders. Those who still use it know “that could change,” says the young Amish man’s mother, standing next to him in the mud earth of their produce field. Her eyes are gentle, like the lifestyle of this rural, farming community.

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03 Jan 2016

By Rachel Mast