Take a drive in the country and you'll see hand-painted signs leading the way to farm-gate sales of fresh eggs, geese, ducks, turkey, maple syrup and all sorts of produce. But you'll also come across self-serve roadside stands at the end of farm laneways with so-called "honour stands" where you take the produce and leave your money.

The simple contract is this: farmers stock the stand with good-quality and fresh-picked produce that comes from their fields; consumers, for their part, take what they want and leave their money. 

While there are dozens of examples throughout the Region, to get an idea let's consider just one exemplary stand on Hessen Strasse Road, a few minutes outside of Waterloo and the St. Jacobs Farmers Market. Lydia-Anne Lahman and her daughters offer free-run eggs and other produce like yellow beans from their garden at their roadside stand.

They tend to about 100 chickens in their barn and label and pack the eggs on ice, secured with an elastic band and in a plastic bag. You select the produce you want and leave the money in a little purse. If you take the last dozen eggs, you're asked to place the cooler on the ground to indicate that it needs to be refilled.

It's simple, quaint and captures the essence of the tradition. The free-run eggs, granted they are ungraded and different sizes unlike grocery store eggs, represent good value and are very fresh. The stand is open from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day but Sunday.  

Urban honour

Of course, there are examples of honour stands in urban neighbourhoods – you can often see a lemonade stand where you take a drink and leave some change. In fact, the business model of the popular City Café Bakery restaurants includes honour pay: you order a slice of pizza or slather their Montreal-style bagels with cream cheese and drop the money in an old transit fare box – on your honour.

However, it is in the rural setting where honour stands are most prevalent. Consider the map of Waterloo Region: our farmers "hug" our cities. That is, the four rural townships (Wellesley, Wilmot, North Dumfries and Woolwich) wrap around the cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo and supply them with local food.

Nostalgia, no app

These self-serve farm stands aren't merely nostalgia, or quaint, old-timey signifiers of a past era. They make economic sense for the farmer who doesn't have to dedicate time and personnel to make a few additional sales. Consumers have the opportunity to buy delicious, healthy food that local farmers have grown and usually sell at prices that represent very good value. That feels good.

The interaction, precisely because there is no direct contact, breaks the normal transactional pattern whereby we might feel we have not gotten value. The fact that this farm-stand commerce takes place with a sense of trust by both parties feels even better. 

I just hope that nobody creates an app with an algorithm for finding farm-gate honour stands. I like the old-school approach of heading out on the road, without really knowing where you're going, and discovering what delicious local food you might find – and buy on your honour.