Stealing from Orchard Hill Farm just got a whole lot more embarrassing.
The Jacksonville Road self-service farm stand, which has had problems this year with people taking fruits and vegetables and not paying or paying less than the posted cost, has hung a "Wall of Shame" poster, revealing surveilance images of people caught stealing from the stand, as well as their vehicles.
"This man in a white Silverado pick-up truck took $47 in produce and paid $5 on Sept. 7," the poster reads above photographs of the man and vehicle. "This woman in a dark SUV took about $45 in produce and paid $4."
For more than 150 years, the VanNess family has been operating the stand in Towaco and relying on customers to slip money through the door for the items they would like to purchase.
Russell VanNess, 65, is the owner and operator, with help from his wife, Donna VanNess, and daughter, Jennifer VanNess. Since opening the farm stand, Russell VanNess has taken a full-time job, but his family has maintained the stand by operating it as self-service and checking in whenever possible.
"We have a sign up there that we're not doing this just for the fun of it. We like to accomodate our old-time customers," Donna VanNess said. "It's getting to the point that my husband and I are killing ourselves and people are ripping me off."
In July, the VanNesses suffered their biggest hit so far when a woman in a luxury vehicle allegedly took $70 worth of produce without paying. Jennifer VanNess said the woman was seen on camera with a small girl, but there was not enough information to go to police. Also, she said, the cost to prosecute each alleged shoplifter caught on tape would be too much for the family, so often times they have let it go.
Since then, VanNess said the woman with the luxury vehicle has come back to the farm and paid the full amount of the produce. The small girl, who was her daughter, VanNess said, was mortified.
"They had the dollar amount and everything and they wanted it to be taken off the computer," she said.
VanNess said the woman claimed she was planning to pay when she returned from vacation at a later date. While she said "either it was a misunderstanding or it wasn't," VanNess believes that the word spread around town about the woman and she came forward to do what was right.
Even though the money was eventually paid to the farm in that situation, VanNess said others have continued to take more produce than they are paying for since then.
"We've had a couple people who pay $5 and take $40 worth of stuff," she said.
Donna VanNess said the people doing this are often systematic in their approach.
"One woman came in and she took two quarts of string beans and a thing of carrots, which should have been like $5.50, and she put in $1. She put that in the car and she took peaches and apples and then put $1 [in the door] and brought that back to the car," she said. "She did this three or four times. As we totaled it up, it came to like $44 or $45 and she put in $4 total. Why is it that people think we put the stuff down there and the cameras and they think that we don't check? That we don't know how much we should have?"
Donna VanNess said she knows exactly how much produce is put out each day and how much was taken and not paid for when that happens. While she understands some families may be struggling, she said hers is no different.
"If they don't have it, what makes them think we have it? We're struggling day-to-day," she said. "We really have to re-think what we want to do for next year."
She said her family is still considering closing up shop based on the shoplifting and the poor farming season they are coming out of. According to Jennifer VanNess, aside from the season that included Hurricane Irene, this has been one of the worst in the farm's history because of the weather and animals eating the crops.
Donna VanNess said her family will be researching how other farms with self-service stands operate before making a decision on whether to open next year. In the meantime, she hopes to see the shoplifting stop at the stand.
"If somebody was hungry and they came to us and said, 'We don't have any money, we don't have any food,' I'm sure we would have no problem with that. But come and ask us," she said.