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At roadside, cultivating trust


The stand appears at the edge of a driveway along Pleasantville Road. It is a small, round patio table laden with fat tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, beets and summer squash that Michael Donhauser has spent the past few months nurturing from seed to harvest.

Donhauser, a retired grocery store manager, spends hours each day puttering in the two garden plots he cultivates behind his tidy Fallston home and his son's house across the two-lane road. He weeds and waters, plants and picks, tills and toils.

But drivers who stop at his tiny roadside stand won't find the 72-year-old with the easy smile anywhere in sight when it's time to pay for their produce. Instead of a cash register, there's a cardboard Don Diego cigar box with a severed lid. And instead of Donhauser standing there taking money, there's an understanding: Take a plastic bag from the bucket under the table, fill it with whatever vegetables you desire and leave your dollar bills and coins in the box.

This is the honor system. And for hundreds of gardeners and people with small farms throughout the state, it's the best way they've found to sell their wares without missing any time in the field.

"They're pretty honest people up here so far," said Donhauser, who has had a garden every summer of his adult life but only started selling his extra produce on the honor system last year.

It's cash only. And he says he's never been shortchanged or robbed. However, with dozens more tomatoes than he and his wife Delores can use, Donhauser wouldn't get too upset if a few were filched.

"If people take it, it doesn't matter to him," Delores Donhauser said. "At least the fruits of his labor are recognized."

The practice of trusting people to pony up a quarter for a tomato or two dimes for a pepper seems like a relic in a society where doors are always locked, cars are equipped with alarms and children are cautioned about the dangers of talking to strangers.

Stands that use the honor system survive, according to business ethics professor Fred Guy, because if you expect the best from people, they usually deliver.

"I have faith that people have a little bit too much pride in themselves to steal two cantaloupes from a farmer," said Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics.

People who run honor system stands "are setting great examples," he said. "That's what embarrasses people - they don't want to shame themselves into demeaning that example."

The honor system doesn't work just anywhere, sellers say. It's best suited to secondary roads used by neighbors and commuters avoiding traffic - people who know the stands are there and know the owners.

Just down the road from Donhauser's Harford County stand, Lil Burl of Fallston stopped by Bill and Judy Harlan's stand at Belvedere Farms to pick through the last Precious Gem corn of the summer. The farm stand is staffed for sales four days a week in the summer and weekends during the fall, but the Harlans put it on the honor system in the height of summer to sell ripe produce and blooming flowers while they're fresh.

Burl is a regular and stops by daily to buy a few tomatoes or peaches and doesn't mind having to help herself. "This is the old-fashioned way of doing things," she said, noting that she prefers stopping at Belvedere to braving the supermarket. "This is right on my way home."

Labor is a big factor for farmers who set up stands, according to Tony Evans, who coordinates farmers' markets for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Many farms are simply too small to sell at farmers' markets or to staff their stands. Setting up a table of vegetables on the honor system allows growers to sell their produce without a lot of fuss.

As long as the stands are on the owner's land and are seasonal, they do not require state permits, he said.

"It's wonderful, it's old-fashioned and it's lovely that it still persists in a lot of places," Evans said. "But you don't get to talk to the farmer."

Donhauser makes about $15 per day selling his vegetables in front of his house - money he either puts back into his garden or uses to buy an occasional beer at the local tavern. "He's not doing it for the money," said Delores Donhauser. "He gets a kick out of it."

Still, Michael Donhauser makes sure to walk out to the end of his driveway and clean the cash out of the cigar box every time a shopper drives off. He's a trusting soul, but not a foolish one.

"Leaving the money there, now that would be asking for it," he said.

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