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Jenn Reeve showcases her wares at Farmer Jenn’s in Aquebogue. (Photo credit: Nicholas Grasso)

It’s a summery Friday afternoon on the North Fork. Parked cars line either side of Main Road in Mattituck, their drivers and passengers all heading to the same place: the fully stocked, brightly colored produce stand at Wowak Farms.

Among the customers is Emilie Zaweski, whose husband, Mark Zaweski, is a fourth-generation farmer. They have a similar but smaller farm stand at MKZ Farms, with a handful of crops for sale. After she grabs several ears of corn and an array of freshly picked veggies that she’ll use to whip up a pasta primavera, Zaweski hands her cash to Valerie Pettit, the third-generation farmer who helms Wowak Farms. 

But while Zaweski is here, shopping and chatting with Pettit, who’s watching the tomatoes and lavender for sale over at MKZ Farms?

Like many others, the Zaweskis’ farm stand relies on the honor system. For generations, local farmers have left cash boxes on their counters so customers can pay for their purchases. These boxes are typically heavy metal, locked up and bolted down, with a slot where customers slip in their cash. Others are less protected, not much more than a bin with a lid the customers themselves can open and close at will. Does theft happen? As surely as corn comes up every summer. But the honor system remains a strong tradition on the North Fork — even if, with modern technology at the ready, the way it’s practiced can be a little different these days. 


(Photo credit: Nicholas Grasso)

“[Theft occurs] probably every day, somebody’s stealing something,” says one farmer who wished to remain anonymous, citing concern that theft at their stand could increase if identified. “You count everything that’s out there, and you know if it should be, say, $75, and it’ll be $40.”

Despite the widespread theft that farmers endure every year, the honor system persists. It’s unclear exactly when the custom became commonplace on the North Fork. Some farmers speculated it could have started as a common courtesy, neighbors with extras offering them to others who could use them. 

For North Forkers, slipping folded dollar bills into cash boxes is even more natural than scanning barcodes at self-checkouts in supermarkets. The rural custom certainly predates that now ubiquitous technology.

“[I’ve known of] the honor system ever since I was born,” says Jenn Reeve, who runs Farmer Jenn’s farm stand in Aquebogue. “I’ve been doing the honor system for over 20 years.”

Shoppers will often find Reeve at her stand, but when she steps away, she relies on honesty from her patrons. If and when farmers employ the honor system comes down to business decisions. Some farmers cannot afford to pay a staff member to watch over their stand. For others, including the Zaweskis, the farm stand is hardly a cash cow, as their wholesale greenhouse operation, along with their Farmers Kitchen storefront in Riverhead, make up the lion’s share of their business—and business is good. They don’t worry when their cash box comes up short.

“Am I doing anything [to prevent theft]? No,” Zaweski says. “What are you going to do? It’s not a lot, but it happens.”

Conversely, Kevin and Donna Polak, who own Country View Farm Stand in Southold, one of the North Fork’s largest, say they would never use the honor system. Their stand, which boasts not only locally grown crops but imported fruits and vegetables, home baked pies and high-end dairy products, accounts for their entire business. They monitor their livelihood in person, with watchful eyes, as do their staff and the dozen security cameras they installed around four years ago.

“You still need somebody here every day to restock,” Donna says. “I would never do [an] honor system—I mean, look at all our high-end cheeses.”

“I think we’re just too busy to allow that,” Kevin adds. “We find people want to talk to the owners, see them and be on a first-name basis.”


Wowak Farms (Photo: Nicholas Grasso)

Farmers also consider whether or not the honor system would actually be convenient for their customers. At Wowak Farms, Pettit explains that a self-service roadside stand works best in the spring when she offers only asparagus, strawberries and peas, as well as in the fall when the pickings are cut down to broccoli, cauliflower and potatoes. Come summer, when her stand is fully loaded with colorful peppers, carrots, onions, squash and plenty more—all with different prices—she and her staff need to be on hand to assist customers.

“Every year we start with self-serve on the honor system and then we switch over once we have too much stuff,” Pettit explains. “We can’t make customers do all the math and the weighing and everything. There’s just too much stuff to figure out … and then the line would build up.”

When stands are left unattended, theft is not only possible, but seemingly probable. For some farmers, there’s only so many times a cash box can be broken before their spirit suffers the same fate.

“We used to [use the honor system], and then we gave it up because it doesn’t take much to ruin that, unfortunately,” says Al Krupski of Krupski Farms. “Ninety-nine percent of your customers are honest, and one person is breaking into the money box every day. It gets old very quickly … It gets to the point where you say, ‘Is it worth me doing all that work if someone’s going to be trying to just break in every day, or every second day or every third day?’ ”


Valerie Pettit greets customers at her stand at Wowak Farms. (Photo credit: Nicholas Grasso)

For some farmers, the feeling of time and effort spent in vain weighs more heavily than the loss of dollars and cents.

“It’s not as easy as it seems, [it’s not] like we put the stuff out and then we’re done,” Reeve says. “There’s so much back work that goes into farming and the market or a farm stand that unless you do it, nobody would really know.”

Reeve and many other farmers have installed security cameras at their stands within the last decade. With cameras, they can gather license plate numbers and report thefts to the police. But even with these electric eyes, farmers also rely on their neighbors to watch out for their goods.

“I didn’t want to put the cameras in because it takes away from that sense of community, but times change and you have to,” Reeve says. “We have, with the community’s support and cameras, been able to address any dishonesty.”

A few years ago, Pettit installed a camera at the Wowak Farms stand and said she had fewer incidents than usual.

“Everyone was really good this [past] year,” she says. “Here and there [there were thefts], and we got some IOUs and people would come back and pay.”

While every farmer encounters theft, it does not deter most of them from opening their honor system farm stands year after year. Their primary motivation is to be of service to the community.

“Because it’s nice to offer locals what we have,” Zaweski says. “It’s for the local people, or not even just locals—whoever is driving by.”

“It’s people communicating, it’s people talking in a society where people [typically] don’t—they’re texting, they’re messaging,” Reeve says. “Here, people talk, people are friendly, people are helpful. That’s what I love the most about this.”