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September 9, 2013

Farm honor system can grow on you

The Daily Star

---- — What a difference the flip of a calendar makes. I love September and the produce stands!

The farmers’ vegetable stands are all over already and loaded with what looks like a promising harvest. From Fly Creek to Worcester to Otego and Gilbertsville, I saw picnic tables out in front of the farmers’ houses groaning with enough dazzling crop colors to make any artist cry. Gorgeous tomatoes, cukes, corn, green and yellow peppers, zucchini and more. These little farm stands have been a presence in my life as far back as I can remember.

In Sidney we had a bunch of them, but it was always Johnson’s Farm Market that we went to. Millie and Walt Johnson were the owners. They had everything from pumpkins to corn to pies to homemade gifts to, well, almost everything. When the fields were kissed with autumnal bliss and the chill of October settled in, old Walt would crank up his ancient tractor and take all the kids on a ride through the countryside. It was perfectly charming and was a hallmark of harvest season growing up in Sidney.

The thing I always admired about most farm stands was the fact that they were on the honor system. Just an old cigar box or a glass mayonnaise jar on the table for you to put your money in. These stands were almost never manned. The farm family, including the kids, were usually out in the fields. I always thought it was endearing that before the family went out to work all day in the fields, that they brought out some corn and tomatoes and apples for us to enjoy when we drove by. Some places even had a sign that would read: “Pay what you think is fair.” What do I know about the price of a summer squash? I think I must have way overpaid every time I visited the stands.

The honor system? Remarkable in this day and age, isn’t it? “Pay what you think is fair.” Really incredible. I will bet, however, that the cash box always evened out at the end of a long day and that nothing was taken without payment.

Last week I stopped at an old favorite, the farm stand on Covered Bridge Road between Unadilla and Wells Bridge. It looks like it was lifted from a John Deere calendar. Pumpkin patch in full bloom, towering sunflowers waving in the breeze. Inside the little shed there was a harvest for sale. Everything big, colorful, juicy and tempting. The surrounding fields were chock-a-block with corn. Tens of thousands of ears of corn. It made my back hurt just looking at it. Inside I gathered up three large cucumbers, three perfect-looking tomatoes and some giant green and yellow peppers. A friendly older gent came over and asked, “Is that it?” I wanted everything, but, yes, I told him that was it.

Now normally, you can go by this farm stand and see the cash box out front to place your money in. But this was a weekend so the old farmer was tending the stand himself. “How much?” I asked. He thought for a minute and said, “How about $4?”

I wanted to say, “No way!” I wanted to say, “I’ll pay what I thought was fair,” like the signs of my youth. I wanted to say, “How about $8?” I wanted to pay for more than just a bag of produce. I wanted to pay for a way of life, a slice of Americana, a nostalgic touchstone to the past. But I knew the old guy would just say, “It’s only $4, sir” so I paid it.

As I drove away, I surveyed the immense complexity of this man’s farm. Barns, silos, huge old farmhouse, acres of corn as far as the eye can see. Both sides of the road. Lowing cows, blackbirds overhead looking for “gifts.” I thought about how much work goes into this operation day after day, year after year, generation after generation. Here, and at every one of the vanishing farms in our area. How the morning starts and the family heads out to work harder in one day than I will work in a month.

And how, on the way out to the fields and barns, the old farmer thoughtfully gathers up some corn and squash and tomatoes and apples and sets them out on a table for us to wander by and purchase.

On the honor system, no less.


I’ll catch you in two ...

“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find him on Facebook by searching “Big Chuck.” He invites you to contact him at His columns can be found at