Bartering for Food, Seedlings and Dental Work

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Jonah Richards found a successful swap in the Bahamas by bartering for food and trading fish for bananas or alfalfa sprouts for mangoes.

The Successful Swaps column shares success stories in bartering, including stories on bartering for food, seedlings and dental work.

In MOTHER EARTH NEWS issue 37, Bill Wodraska shared some of his thoughts regarding one of humankind’s better ideas—barter—and offered up an interesting suggestion: “I’d like to see a continuing feature on barter and skill-and-labor exchanges,” said Bill. “Maybe MOTHER could even swap subscriptions for contributions to the department. ” “You’re on!” we replied . . . and announced our still-standing offer: Anyone who sends us a short account of an actual barter that gets printed in this column (write THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS®, Hendersonville, North Carolina) will receive a 12-month subscription (new or extended) to MOTHER.

Living in the Bahamas — where it’s generally illegal for a foreigner to work for money — poses an interesting challenge to an experienced barterer like myself. Consequently, I find myself really on the move, bartering for food, trading fish for bananas and papaya, or giving a day’s work picking pineapples in exchange for a 50-pound sack of the “pines.” I’ve even swapped alfalfa sprouts (a treat no Bahamian had ever heard of) for mangoes, which — in turn — were bartered for a hot bath.

And there’s this wonderful old farmer on the island who has lost most of his eyesight. We often take walks together through the thick bush on his land. Along the way, he’ll stop and say, “Look in that tree, spy limes?” Sure enough. The vegetation was so dense that I would have missed ’em, but the old man knew where the limes were just by feel. And he always insisted on giving me some of the fruit for “being his eyes.”

Now we’re in the U.S. for a short time, and I don’t go anywhere without a box of barter, usually some apples or prunes. I trade for just about anything, from a meal to a chiropractic adjustment. We experience more of a feeling of giving what we have and receiving what we need. And isn’t that what it’s really all about?

— Jonah Richards
Eleuthera, Bahamas

Last spring — naturally right about the time I needed to plow, disc, and harrow — my tractor decided it wouldn’t start. So a friend who lives across the lake from me (and who just happens to be an excellent, A-1 mechanic) completely rebuilt the machine in trade for some milk, eggs, and a kid goat. Not a bad deal for either of us!

Since that time, I’ve traded milk to a next door neighbor for a few truckloads of manure, swapped a rooster to the local newspaper editor for a free ad, given some garden space to another neighbor (we’ve got lots of ’em, and all good folks) in return for weeding our garden . . . well, I could go on and on. To my way of thinking, though, makin’ deals and trading is simply a transition between two totally different ways of life.

Let me explain: In the anything-but-extinct monied, capitalistic way of life, the object of the game is to see just how much you can get for yourself. The emphasis is on the getting.

The other way is simply living by “giving.” But it’s an awfully hard transition to make, moving that emphasis on “getting” over to “giving”. The true giving people offer their time and energy without actually caring if it’s repaid because they’re aware of a cosmic harmony that tends to balance out everything that really matters. In that sense, I guess it’s a kind of cosmic trading . . . with no need to waste time keeping score all the time.

But trading, swapping, bartering, whatever you call it . . . it’s great. It’s not all giving, and it’s not all getting. Just yesterday, in fact, a friend sent me a letter saying that some other friends up the coast would sure like to trade mushrooms for a few pears and apples. Sounds OK to me!

— M.T. Coleman
Ganges, B.C., Canada

Our family-style barters have gone on for so many years that it’s impossible to keep track of them all! But here’s a sampling:

I own a greenhouse, but have very little cleared land where I can set out the vegetable seedlings I raise. My dad, on the other hand, has lots of garden space . . . so I start his seeds in my greenhouse and pass along the strong, healthy young plants for him to put in his plot, which has already been tilled — and will later be weeded — by my sister and brother-in-law. Then, at harvest time, which, I might add — is often weeks before other gardeners’ crops are usually ready, my father provides my sister, her husband, and me with all the fresh beans, corn, squash, and other vegetables we need.

More swaps: On frequent visits, my sister — a budding photographer — swaps lots of pictures of my new daughter for use of my sewing machine. Then there’s my brother — a house painter — who enjoys a home-cooked breakfast at my mom’s house every day and — in return — has paneled her kitchen, put in a new dining room ceiling, and painted her entire house.

My sister-in-law gets into the act by driving my mother on shopping trips so that she can use Mom’s car. And I take my sister-in-law swimming once a week during the summer in exchange for a little babysitting time.

In other words, whenever someone in our family finds an item that’s no longer needed (alarm clocks, tablecloths, clothing, food, vitamins, plants . . . you name it), he/she checks with the other households for a possible swap. Anything left over goes into a big box in my basement and — in the spring and fall — we get together for a great family fun day: selling our combined treasures at an outdoor flea market. If that doesn’t dispose of a particular item, only then do we think about throwing it away!

— Elise MacDonald
Yorktown Heights, New York

My husband Clif and I often spend afternoons searching for arrowheads and other Indian artifacts. Of course, I show our finds to everyone, including our dentist, who’s also interested in these historical objects but who simply has no spare time to spend tramping through fields searching for them.

So naturally we started to swap: our D.D.S.’s professional services (a gold crown on one of my teeth, for example) in exchange for our Indian treasures (in one particular instance, a war club in such excellent shape that the deer hide wrapped around the handle was still intact).

We’ve continued to trade off and on, and — as a result — have both saved a lot of money in the process. And Clif and I feel doubly lucky because we’ve got two reasons to keep smiling: Not only do we get competent dental care, but — at the same time we’re “working” gathering the artifacts — we can spend some truly pleasant hours together outdoors.

— Debby Major
Wichita, Kansas

MOTHER EARTH NEWS arrived in the mail at a time when I badly needed some winter boots but just didn’t have the money to purchase the really warm pair I’d set my mind on. Your Successful Swaps department, however, set my wheels in motion.

Since my chickens were laying well, I stayed awake all one night mentally asking the owners of the only nearby store which carried such boots if they’d trade for several dozens of my eggs over the coming months. The next morning when I told my husband about the scheme, he was skeptical, but I remained determined. “Look,” I said, “I’m going out to ask the store owners if they’d care to barter . . . and then I’m going to come home and write MOTHER to tell her about my deal so I can receive a 12-month renewal of my subscription!”

To make the story short, that’s exactly what I did (though I have to confess I was sure afraid to try this unusual business arrangement for the first time). And now I have a pair of warm boots, some new egg customers, another year of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and the confidence to suggest even more swaps in the future.

Thanks for the inspiration!

— Diane Kaufmann
Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado

During the winter, we’ve always been able to see for 30 miles out the back windows of our hilltop house, but in past summers, leaves on the tall trees growing behind our home would block this scenic vista. For some reason, we never mustered enough time — or energy — to remove all those trees ourselves. So I finally decided to run an ad in our local paper offering free wood (mostly oak and maple . . . both excellent fuels) to anyone who’d cut and haul the timber away.

The seven groups which accepted my offer eventually took down 50 or 60 trees (I had all the folks sign a disclaimer to free us of responsibility in case anyone got hurt). One couple, who cut and carted off five utility trailers’ worth of freshly cut firewood, then returned to give us a load of already split and seasoned logs from their own supply. And of course we gathered up plenty of small leftover scraps to keep our fireplace ablaze throughout the cold season.

Now we’ve reclaimed our view (at considerable savings to us . . . a professional tree removal company once charged us $200 for cutting down a single tree). And a number of hardworking woodcutters have been able to enjoy the comfort — and economy — of free wood heat.

— Gail Olson
Harvard, Massachusetts

After “serving time” in the city, our decision to move to the country came as naturally as breathing. And — just as naturally — barter became part of our lives from the very start: My husband and I acquired a lovely old farmhouse for a pittance in rent, simply because we agreed to take care of repairs and up-keep.

It wasn’t long before we discovered that our artistic talents were especially valuable “trade goods.” For instance: In exchange for designing some business cards and flyers three years ago, I received a beautiful registered appaloosa filly, which is now worth far more than my original artwork. More recently, we swapped custom design work on a van interior for a much-needed four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Almost everyone requires a sign at some time or another, and we’ve taken full advantage of that fact by trading for hospital care, a lawyer’s services in drafting a will, electrical work, some long-desired (and — before barter — some long-out-of-financial-reach) flying lessons, veterinary services, and even the retirement of a small bank loan.

It’s really great! No one has felt cheated, and we’ve gotten to know some wonderful neighbors.

— Pamela Cox
Bedford, Virginia

A while back, a woman in my community needed the remains of her mobile home, which had been destroyed in a fire, removed from her lot (for the least expense possible, of course). Though the structure had burned clean to the floor, I discovered that the axles and tires were barely scorched.

So, I hitched my trusty 1962 Chevy pickup to the carcass and pulled it the short half mile from her property to the local landfill. There I cut the frame just behind the axles and removed (and discarded) the ruined appliances, furniture, and flooring. Then I towed the stripped-down skeleton home, moved the axles forward, installed an oak deck (made from 2-by-6-inch boards), and sat back to admire my durable, first-rate “hauler.”

This new trailer opened the door to yet a second swap. One of my neighbors needed some trees removed from his garden area. Together we cut the timber and — with my vehicle — carted it to the mill where we swapped the logs for 2-by-4s. My friend ended up with enough lumber to build a chicken shed (in addition to getting a cleared garden and a number of treetops for firewood). In return, he helped me thin my woodlot and haul away the logs.

As you can see, I’m always looking for a swap, even a “one-way” deal where I do a service and tell the recipient “I’ll let you know when I need some help.” There’s just no better way to make — or strengthen — a friendship.

— Dan Crutchfield
Folsom, Louisiana

I’m a professional photographer who teaches the standard basics of photography, but I get a special kick out of giving my students hints for minimizing dependency on store-bought supplies and equipment.

In this spirit (doing an “end run” around The System, that is), I encourage the members of my classes to barter out the cost of my course of instructions instead of paying me money for it. These swaps not only prove both interesting and useful, but provide continuing relationships with class members.

For example: A recent three-night, six-hour, intensive training session for six “would-be” photographers yielded a much-needed cookstove, two excellent haircuts, a dental checkup (complete with teeth cleaning and X-rays), a three-day trailer rental, someone to assist me in loading a huge moving van, and some fine wine.

I’d never trade these swaps for cash!

— Bob Fitch
Weed, California

When we purchased our new home, we faced two immediate problems: depletion of our savings and the need for a storage area (to protect bicycles, garden equipment, etc.). We had our hearts set on a 10-foot-square metal shed, but its retail price ($150) was out of our reach.

One day I noticed that a nearby house, which had recently burned, had the kind of shed I needed around back. After checking out the situation, I discovered that the real estate company which had handled our home also owned the burned-out property. So I called our agent and — after explaining our economic situation — asked him to hold the orphan outbuilding for several months till we could afford it.

Luck, however, was with us that day. The fellow on the phone remembered seeing some of my handmade furniture and asked if I could do simple carpentry work. Without hesitation, I answered yes, figuring I could always learn if I didn’t already know how to do whatever task he needed done. As it turned out, the agent had several jobs which regular contractors considered too small, and told me that if I could handle the work, the shed and its contents were mine.

Two days later — after sanding and painting some doors and replacing a porch — my wife and I dismantled our new prize and hauled it to our yard.

But the best surprise was yet to come! In addition to the shed and its brick flooring, we also got a metal cabinet, six 2-by-8-by-8-inch boards, a firewood storage rack, and several gallons of paint. And to top off the whole deal, the real estate agent liked my work so much that he now pays me for similar small jobs.

Swapping my time and effort not only got me the shed, but also opened the door to a well-paying, part-time business. Now my bikes stay dry, and thanks to the extra cash I’m earning, our savings are growing.

— Sid Hepler
Goose Greek, South Carolina

During my 10 years as a mechanic, I’ve encountered many customers — particularly students — who needed my services but just couldn’t afford to pay for them. The answer to this dilemma (barter, of course!) was revealed to me one day when a fine arts student from a nearby university offered to trade some of her ceramics for a major engine job. As a result of that agreement, I became the happy owner of a beautiful set of custom-made plates and bowls, and also found a new friend (Pookie, the pottery student) that I would have missed if the transaction had been made in cash.

I liked the idea — and the results — of that swap so well that I’ve since exchanged my labor for a host of items, including everything from a color TV for an engine overhaul to beer and sandwiches for a minor service call.

It’s fun to replace the callousness of “plastic money” with the personal touch inherent in the barter system. And that one-to-one approach is a refreshing antidote for the “cold, hard cash syndrome” that’s infected today’s society.

— Rick Williams
Plantsville, Conneticutt

When the wife and I purchased our 90-year-old wood range (to be used for both cooking and heating), we realized — sadly — that our old potbelly stove just had to go. The question was: Where?

Later that week, while browsing through an antiques shop, we spied a vintage 1914 kerosene water heater (with lots of brass!) that still worked. Though the chances were slim (after all, the price on the water heater was five times more than what I’d paid for our stove), I finally gathered up enough courage to ask the store owner if he’d be interested in trading straight across for our no-longer-needed potbelly. Much to my surprise, he agreed.

Now, with our wood range and kerosene water heater, we’re further on the way to becoming comfortably self-sufficient. And the two items together add that perfect old-timey touch to our kitchen.

— Jeff Lee
Porterville, California

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