Is it the end of the honesty box?

By Jared Savage

A few bad apples have spoiled it for everyone, says a West Auckland orchardist who has had so much fruit stolen from his front gate that he has resorted to video surveillance of his "honesty" box.

Ross and Jenny Mackay say most days fresh fruit is taken from their stall without being paid for - costing the couple up to $1500 each year.

The horticulture industry says the Mackays are far from alone, and the trend has meant the death knell of the traditional Kiwi honesty box.

Growing apples, avocados, mandarins, feijoas and passionfruit on their 12ha property near Helensville for the past 16 years, the Mackays said fruit thefts had become progressively worse.

"It's fresh, cheap fruit and people still insist on stealing it. We work bloody hard to get a product - that's what gets me so wild, so angry," Ross Mackay said.

When the couple first started selling fruit on the roadside in the 1980s, an open yoghurt container held the money so that people could take the correct change.

These days, the money tin is bolted to the stall and a digital video camera is trained on the cars which come up the gravel driveway to catch the culprits in the act.

Mackay then tracks the owners from the car registration plates, names and shames them on a list on the stall, and confronts the thieves at home.

An invoice for the stolen fruit is then issued, or Mackay threatens to send the videotape to police. Recidivist offenders are warned not to set foot on the property again.

"You hear every excuse under the sun but not a lot of apologising," Mackay said.

"I've been verbally threatened but they are the thieves. That's what they are ... they've stolen from us."

The very day that the Herald on Sunday visited, MacKay caught a man on camera taking $6 worth of mandarins - which would cost $7.50 in the supermarket - but paying only $3.

Others caught on camera in the past three years include a family who took all the fruit and then sold it at the Avondale markets, and parents of children in the same rugby team as the Mackays' children.

"Sometimes the parents get the kids to do it. What is that teaching them?" Jenny Mackay said.

The couple need the extra income generated by the stall - which can turn over up to $100 a day in the busy season - but they had seriously thought about giving up.

Sadly, if Mackay did close the stall, he said the faithful locals - 90 per cent of whom are honest customers - would be the ones to miss out.

Peter Silcock, chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand, said the Mackays' story was not extraordinary, and the end of the honesty box was near.

Silcock said it was a sad reflection of the society we lived in but there were not many honesty boxes left, with the decline starting as long as 20 years ago. "A lot of people have had too many hassles being ripped off, so they don't bother."

He said orchardists were hiring security guards to patrol at night.

"We've had situations where, say, the price of avocados has gone up, so people are stealing them off the trees. It's sad, really."

Dianne Vesty, of the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association, said none of the fruit growers she knew had an honesty system any longer, and most gate sales were manned by staff.

"Honesty systems used to work but our population has grown, and with that comes change of attitude."

Former chairman of the Auckland Fruitgrowers Association, Richard Prew, had recently moved to Otago and said thievery was creeping south.

"It's not good enough. To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if it's the end of the honesty box."

However, Prew said honesty boxes were commonplace for swede stalls in Southland.

- Herald on Sunday

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