Bill Wodraska shared some of his thoughts regarding one of mankind's better ideas — barter and trade — and offered up an interesting suggestion: "I'd like to see a continuing feature on barter agreements and skill-and-labor exchanges," said Bill. "You're on!" MOTHER EARTH NEWS replied.
Paint for Pistons
This past summer while on vacation in upper Michigan I made
a lifesaving swap. My 1988 Volkswagen bus had chugged its
way up one last hill and sputtered to a halt ... and—upon
close inspection—I saw that nothing short of a rebuilt
engine would get the old clunker rolling again.
I had no choice but to leave the broken-down vehicle where
it had collapsed and hitch a ride to the nearest village.
Inquiring at the first open gas station, I was directed
three blocks down the street to the only VW mechanic
Few folks would smile in such dire circumstances ... but
as I traipsed toward the shop, my grin became wider than
the wing span of an Andean Condor. I'm a professional
house painter, you see, and I observed that the man's
dwelling was badly in need of a fresh overcoat. (In fact,
someone was beginning to scrape off the last fragments of
chipped paint before my very eyes!)
Needless to say, it was too good a trade for either the
auto doc or me to pass up. We swapped our skills. My disabled bus received a well-deserved rebuilding,
while the mechanic's abode was dressed up in a new
Since then, I've bartered any number of times, but no other
exchange has been quite as opportune as that trade for a
Now that autumn is only a month or so away, and the freezer
and canning jars are once again getting stocked with a
summer harvest of homegrown vegetables, I'm reminded of the
swap that started my family's gardening venture.
Four years ago, we moved to a tiny village in the Upper
Peninsula of Michigan and began renovating an 80-year-old
house. Although we treasured our new-found home, we were
sorry that the Victorian dwelling—which is located near the
center of town—had only a postage stamp of a back yard,
just barely large enough to contain a sandbox, clothesline,
workshop, and woodpile ... much less the expansive garden
our green thumbs ached for!
This past spring I was grumbling to my neighbor—she's a
widow who's nearing her eightieth birthday—that I had space
for only the smallest suggestion of a garden. My friend, in
turn, bemoaned the fact that she could no longer do the
digging, hoeing, and weeding required to grow the fresh
produce which had always adorned her dinner table in the
We looked at each other ... and the idea took root, so to
speak. Within a week she and I had tilled the soil and
planted our mutual garden! Then, throughout the hot summer
months, my many-seasoned friend provided the water,
compost, and land while I furnished the muscle and
seeds. Now we're both munching on the harvest and
making plans for an even bigger garden next spring.
And, of course, there's an added benefit to be had from
bartering: We both reap that best of all harvests ...
I've worked out a swap that not only agrees with my
pocketbook ... but appeals to my palate as well!
A bachelor friend who's pursuing a self-sufficient existence
in the hills of southeastern Oregon has a specialty:
cheesemaking. However, his homemade Cheddar is no ordinary
deli product ... it's apple-wood-smoked ambrosia that is
irresistible to most folks. (And that fact makes it good
My tastebuds being somewhat partial to the mouthwatering
cheese, I order—twice each year—about 50 of the
lemon-colored half-pound packages from my backwoods buddy.
Then, whenever I embark on a coastal trip, I pack an ample
supply of the homemade delicacy along, too. While on the
road, I'll often slice a thin tidbit off one of the creamy
blocks and offer it to the gas station attendant or motel
owner with whom I'm dealing. Invariably, I find myself with
free fuel or lodging ... in exchange for a generous
portion of my "stash."
In fact, I'm able to purchase just about everything I need
while traveling with this "yellow gold." Once, for
instance, when I was fishing off a Pacific rock, I watched
an old codger nearby bag one bonito after another ...
while my line didn't get so much as a nibble. Baiting my
fisherfriend—instead of the hook—with a sample of cheese ... I offered a package for a lesson. Soon I had a pile of
the swift, finned swimmers myself!
And what do I trade with my bachelor friend to get the
cheese in the first place? Well, occasionally the woodsman
hankers for a little civilization, along with some needed
big city (Portland) supplies. To his side of the bargain is
free food and lodging at my urban dwelling—anytime—for as
long as he needs to stay.
Usually after five days or so, my pal, having regaled me
with tales of a far different lifestyle, happily heads back
home. By bartering, we both get the best of country life
and city slackin'!
Barter has always been a part of our lives—trading a CB
radio for auto repairs, painting and papering skills
for lowered rents, and so forth—but, for the longest
time, I hesitated to approach "professionals" with a swap
proposition. Then, when I found out that I was pregnant
with our first child (and knew that our limited funds
wouldn't meet the expense), I plunged in and took a chance.
Being a sculptor by trade, I hesitantly approached our
physician with the offer of a commissioned piece of artwork
in return for medical services. It was well-known that the
doc's ancestors hailed from the green isle of the
leprechaun, so I suggested a cast of an Irish farmer
leaning against a stone fence. Well, to my surprise (and
delight!) the doctor enthusiastically agreed to the idea.
As a result of the bargain, we "paid off"—for a mere $75
worth of materials and foundry work—over $400 in medical
bills ... which not only took care of our daughter's
delivery, but all her immunizations as well!
Since that time I've traded my art for other health
services and legal fees, too. In fact, at the moment, I'm
shopping around for a dentist with a yen for sculpture and
a bent for barter. (After all, professionals are "just
Stitcher for Trailer for Stitcher
Four years ago, while preparing to make our move to the
country, my husband and I held a giant garage sale to
dispose of all the city trappings we'd accumulated.
Although I was more than happy to place most of the old
belongings in new hands, I hated to see my sewing machine
go. However, electrical appliances would have no place in
our simpler lifestyle ... so I made no objection when my
spouse swapped the stitcher for a trailer (which we
desperately needed to transport the tools and equipment
we'd gathered for our homestead start).
When we reached our land, the versatile hauler served us as
a storage shed while we built our house. Then, in the
autumn, it became a first-rate firewood carrier. The next
summer I again transformed the mobile shelter (with the
help of a few 2 X 4's and some plastic covering) ... this
time into a temporary greenhouse. But by year's end my
ideas for using the trailer were exhausted.
Eventually, after watching the paper for notices of moving
sales, I located a family in need of just such a vehicle.
Rather than asking for cash, I suggested that I go to their
sale ... and possibly we could work out a swap. One look
around and the deal was clinched: I drove away with a
beaming smile, a treadle sewing machine ... and a firm
belief in barter!