Bartering is a great tool for getting the supplies and help you need without spending an arm and a leg.
ILLUSTRATION: DAVID COULSON
When we were kids, bartering was the way we acquired the things we felt were the necessities of life: Mom's chocolate-chip cookies were traded for your best friend's mom's homemade popsicles. A Willie Mays baseball card garnered a half-dead frog, a cat's-eye boulder marble and a broken slingshot. While a few of us left our bartering ways behind when we entered the world of "real" money — as well as the real world of stress, tension and headaches of living in a cash-oriented society — many of us, in this time of recession and rising housing costs, are rediscovering bartering as a way to get what we need in life.
For the last few years, I have moved considerably away from paying with cash to bartering for many of the essentials and non-essentials of life on my 150-acre farm. By using the bartering method, I'm able to channel most of my cash flow back into my farm operation and away from everyday living expenses. My need for ready cash has greatly diminished, and the fun of bartering has relieved some of the financial pressures of modern living.
Anyone can barter, whether they live on a two-acre lot or a 5,000-acre farm. I started my adult bartering career with two acres of strawberries I had planted to sell on a pick-your-own basis to supplement my income. A neighbor who lived on a nearby dairy farm spied my strawberries, and we struck a bargain: For every four cases of my strawberries she picked, her family would manure one acre of my land. My fertilizer bill was cut in half.
That small taste led me to search out other possibilities. Within a few months I bartered strawberries for foodstuffs, tailoring and services such as small-equipment repair. I even bartered strawberries for the glass on my new greenhouse that started my produce business. After that, I bartered for radio promotion spots to advertise the produce during the tourist season!
With a surplus of melons and other produce, I realized there would be a certain amount of waste. I asked another farming neighbor if he would like to use the waste as a diet supplement for his hogs — and in return, at butchering time, he could dress a hog for my freezer. Later, in return for inviting a few of his friends, he roasted and served the pig at my annual harvest party. I hosted and furnished the side dishes and enjoyed a great amount of free publicity for my fruit farm.
I once bartered almost an entire party for 300 people. The local chamber of commerce was aiming to obtain publicity for our area’s attractions. With this in mind, they approached me about using my farm for a party for television, radio and newspaper personalities coming in from the three major cities in our state.
The money provided for the party by the chamber of commerce was only enough to cover the meat and drinks. Since my main commodity in the barter was publicity, I contacted a friend who owned a local restaurant and asked his chef to cook the three sucklings over a hurriedly dug pit, in return for a sign on the skewer promoting his restaurant. Next, I called a tent-rental company and offered the same in return for a large open tent. Then I called a square-dance group and band and offered them free food and publicity for their services. On a roll and struck with inspiration, I did the same for a skydiving club, and even got some extra unbartered excitement when one of them landed wrong and broke his leg. (For three times the excitement and publicity, I was hoping the other two would come in for a crash landing; they weren't in the mood. Later, the crippled skydiver returned to the party, cast and all.)
A local beer distributor (and longtime friend) was cajoled into buying some fireworks — simply for the privilege of setting them off. Never underestimate a friend's weird sense of adventure. Finally, I convinced a local hotel owner to send several barmaids to help serve (which contributed considerably to the epidemic of eyestrain among the guests). In return for all this bartering effort on my part, the farm received much publicity from the party — including the cover story for one magazine and a television spot.
In addition to garnering publicity, bartering has cut my labor costs for the farm in half. By offering a combined package of a few dollars an hour plus all the produce and fruit their families can eat, my teenage crew of help is always more than I can usually use at one time. One man — a former worker of mine — comes out during harvest season and spends the whole day helping in return for melons for his family. One lady canned my entire winter supply of fruits and vegetables in return for the amount she needed for her family.
My 50 acres of woods have been a virtual gold mine for bartering now that wood is in great demand for woodstoves, furnaces and fireplaces, which helps cut down on rising heating bills. I've traded wood for everything imaginable, even some of my doctor fees. My hog-raising next-door neighbor traded me another half a hog for permission to cut wood in my lot. Having more than enough pork for my taste, I bartered the extra half with a dairy farmer for half a cow for my freezer. I've traded garden produce and melons for eggs and milk.
Seeing my success, my neighbor now leads a similar life on 15 acres. He's proof that an average family can do it on as little as two or three acres by planting "cash" crops. An acre of produce and a half-acre of fruit can provide a family with enough left over from their own use to barter for a great deal of the other necessities.
Starting Out on Your Own
You can easily barter strawberries because nearly everyone likes them. A quarter-acre of strawberries and a quarter-acre of varied fruit trees (peaches work well) can be readily traded for other foodstuffs or small services with neighbors in an urban or rural area. For instance, a case of strawberries (eight quarts) can be bartered for the labor of a mechanically inclined neighbor who could do a tune-up or oil change (parts provided by you, of course), or perhaps sharpen those lawn-mower and knife blades.
Good types of produce to barter are cucumbers (for pickling), tomatoes (in quantities for canning), green peppers and beans. Homegrown melons have a special appeal over those flavorless, commercially grown, shipped-in types.
Services can be bartered also, especially in urban areas. If you have a particular specialty, skill or hobby, it could prove extremely barterable. A woman might barter her culinary or sewing skills for babysitting or hairdressing services. A man may barter his woodworking skills for produce or other services. The things that can be bartered are endless. All it takes to become successful are imagination and effort.
On a larger scale, trade systems can be established in neighborhoods and rural areas to the benefit of all involved (the monetary savings will depend on how much and what you barter). I have found, however, that the quality of services and goods that I have bartered for have been, on the whole, better than those commercially purchased. And with the demand for fresh produce, you'll find that most people will readily barter at a higher value in trade than they would pay cash for at the supermarket because of the assured homegrown quality.
You will naturally run into barters that won't work out as well as you would like. I once bartered to have my wood supply cut for the winter from my woodlot by a man who would receive one truckload of wood for every one he cut for me. He gave out in less than a week. One lady traded me a pie in return for strawberries for her own pies. It was the worst pie I ever had the misfortune to try to eat. So, a word of caution: Watch what you bargain for — you might get it!