Honor system, or honor the system?

As per usual, these past few days have not been without their fair share of farms, fruits, and fruitful conversations.

Fairview Farms

Prior to heading off to Morro Bay for Thanksgiving, Than and I had the pleasure of visiting Fairview Farms, a longstanding Urban farm based in Santa Barbara. There is a lot going on there that we had seen in other places, but some new things there to appreciate as well.

For one, their roadside food stand operated entirely on an honor-system. I’ve often wondered how a small farmer could support themselves through a food stand, and mused about the difficulty/hassle of needing to have someone staff a booth during the day, when need is bound to fluctuate on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. To what degree is an honor system economically feasible?

Honor System

We had the chance to speak a bit with the farm manager of Fairview, a gentleman by the name of Toby, about this very question, and his response was that the amount they lost to theft and dishonesty was fairly minimal. Without getting into specifics, I sensed that it certainly wasn’t enough to substantiate paying a staff person to be present to oversee transactions, when a payment box could suffice.

This in many ways may speak to the unique setting of Fairview, in the relatively affluent Santa Barbaran community. Is this a model that could work elsewhere? And this, of course, keeping in mind that Fairview’s roadside food stand isn’t their primary means of distributing food to the local community. On twelve and a half acres, Fairview Farms grows enough produce to feed approximately five hundred families, all through a “community supported agriculture” or CSA agreement. This farm to family model of connecting urban families with fresh produce, and in the process, supporting the livelihood of smaller scale farming operations, is a model that has grown increasingly more popular in recent years.

Than in front of tractor

Two thoughts then, based on this visit: 1) this “honor system” model of sharing food seems to a fascinating way of sharing food with people, and I wonder to what extent it can be seen as hearkening back to the Biblical expectation that the corners of one’s farmland be set aside for those less fortunate and in need of food. I really like the idea of creating value in a community by offering a portion of food produced freely, to the extent that it is possible to do so without compromising the viability of the farm itself. I’ve had a lot of moving conversations lately about “value”, and how it relates to time and money, and at the end of the day, it’s hard to dispute the essential value of food. To share this essential value independent of the financial value we attribute to it, seems to me in and of itself to be a great service to a community.

2) I think that CSAs are absolutely wonderful, and are part of the larger ecosystem of sustainability that we find ourselves heading to, including other growing trends like farmer’s markets, urban farms, and homescale permaculture. Being at Fairview, I couldn’t help but wonder still to what degree we can achieve these things without being dependent on large-scale agricultural practices. To feed five hundred families from twelve acres of land, Fairview is using a hybrid approach of sorts – combining traditional row farming with interplanting and cover cropping, to reduce the need for imported soils and fertiiizers. I’m interested in learning how we can best strike that balance between producing on a large scale, and creating systems that require little to no inputs (besides perhaps some initial investments in infrastructure and soil building, since so much of our soils have been depleted), or utilize only those inputs that in other contexts would be wasted – i.e. truckloads of coffee grounds, food scraps, and human waste that every day pile up in landfills and get sent to treatment plants, when they could be recycled by nature.

Is large scale, row agriculture, which generally demands a high level of outside inputs, a necessary part of our system when there are now so many mouths to feed? Or can permacultural designs, by their nature not terribly well suited to mechanical harvesting, be implemented on a large enough scale to support our population?


My sense is that, as with all things, we need to strike a balance, and that our transition one way or another will be a gradual balancing act. It seems to me that if CSA’s are supplemented with the active growth of food as a standard on urban and rural plots of land, that the stresses to produce food on massive industrial farms will lessen, and the possibility of rebuilding those systems to be better to the environment becomes more possible. Permaculture tells us to share the surplus – and if we were to commit ourselves to growing food in every nook and cranny we could feasibly and happily do so (apple trees in the company snack room anyone?), how much greater that surplus could be. There’s so much to gain for sowing seeds wherever we can, and it’s hard for me to see what we have to lose, besides our own attachment to the way things are.

Me sniffing a lemon blossom

I know it’s the idealist in me talking, given how very invested some folks are in the way things are – but if thoughts become things, I guess I’ll keeping thinking this way for a bit longer.

Change in the next jar

My love,

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One Response to Honor system, or honor the system?

  1. Becca Meyer says:

    Love you guys. Take me with you!!!

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