Honesty isn't always the policy at self-serve roadside stands

Colleen Kottke

WAUPUN - Steve Hopp has had enough.

Waupun farmer Steve Hopp says his roadside self-serve stand on the east side of the city has been hit by thieves several times this year.

For seven years now the Waupun farmer has been selling pumpkins, squash and other bounty from his farm at a roadside stand in front of the Marshland Mobil gas station on the east edge of the city.

"It seemed like a good way to get rid of a bunch of extra pumpkins," Hopp said. "But when you have someone breaking into your lock box a couple times a month, I'm not going to waste my time and effort just to get ripped off again."

The busy intersection of Hwys. 151 and 49 seemed like the ideal location to cater to travelers filling up at the gas station. However, when Steve returned to check the lock box one day this fall, he discovered that thieves found the location ideal as well.

Signs pointing towards roadside produce stands have popped up all across the state during the summer and fall harvest seasons.

"Half of the wagon was empty, so I was expecting to find at least $250 in the box not $50," he said. "When you grow your own pumpkins having someone stealing one or two isn't the end of the world. But this year has been really bad, especially when  they're breaking into the box during the daytime.

"I guess when you try to do something like this  you're just asking for headaches. Now I understand the concept of just leaving (produce) in the field to rot. It's not worth my time. I won't do this again," he added.

Megan Bruins learned of Hopp's troubles on a group Facebook post. The Bruins' family had a similar dilemma at their stand just south of Waupun on Highway 151.

"We own land on near the corner of Highway 151 and Oakwood Rd. and decided to put a small wagon out there with pumpkins to sell from our family's pumpkin patch," Bruins said. "We did really well for the first couple of weeks but then our lock box got broken into twice in one week."

Produce growers that offer self-serve roadside stands depend on customers to be honest, but that's not always the case.

Bruins said raising pumpkins is a family project, something her husband did while he was still in high school. This year the couple had a prolific pumpkin patch and decided to set up a little stand.

"Our 2-year-old daughter helped plant the pumpkins and later helped us harvest them," Bruins said. "It was a nice little family project."

While the family expected a few pumpkins to go missing, they didn't figure thieves would pry the lid off of the "honor system" box.

"We lost around $40 but to us it's not the money, it's the action," she said. "I'm not sure what we'll do next year - either not do it again or rig something up where they can't steal the box."

After selling their cows in 2010, Bill and Lynda Zeleske of Fond du Lac decided to grow fruits and vegetables to sell at farmers markets and a roadside stand at the end of their driveway.

The first year the couple learned the hard way not to leave garden crafts outside overnight. Other items also began to disappear like decorative gourds and their trust in people.

Wayne and Colleen Lubbert placed this sign on their rural Fond du Lac roadside stand after having trouble with dishonest people.

"One night before leaving to go out to dinner, we checked our lock box and saw that someone had tried to pry it open. We removed the money and locked the box back up," Bill said. "When we returned, we saw that someone had come back with the 'proper tools' and stole the entire box."

Zeleske says he's heard from fellow produce farmers who have also been victims of thieves in the night. Some have resorted to placing cameras and strongly worded signs to protect their property and to remind folks to be honest.

"A friend of ours placed a refrigerated cooler outside in their stand. Three days later it was gone," he said. "My view of humanity was pretty low at that point, but then I knew it was the 1 percent that was doing this. However, we still get paranoid when someone stops at the end of the driveway."

After the last theft, Hopp says he bundled up the remaining vegetables on his stand - including a bushel of squash - and dropped them off at the local food pantry.

"At least they were appreciative of my efforts," Hopp said with a laugh.