In the January/February 1976 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, reader Bill Wodraska shared some of his thoughts regarding one of humankind’s better ideas — barter — and made an interesting suggestion: “I’d like to see a continuing feature on barter and skill-and-labor exchanges,” said Bill. “Maybe MOTHER EARTH NEWS could even swap subscriptions for contributions to the department.”
“You’re on!” we replied. The following are stories of trades and barters we received from MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers.
I really wanted to do something special for my wife Kim
last Christmas. You see, for the preceding five years we’d
lived first in a small trailer, and then in a 16′ X 16′
camp, as we worked toward building our own large stack wall
home. So I had my heart set on giving her something that
would — in effect — let her know that we’d soon have more space
When I was young, my family moved to a small house, and had
to give up a massive maple table of 1800 vintage
that had five pillar legs and enough extra leaves to
comfortably seat a dozen people. I knew who owned
the table, but I couldn’t afford to buy it.
First, I offered to buck, split, and pile several cords
of wood in exchange for the piece of heirloom
furniture, but the owner turned me down . . . since she
could handle those particular chores herself. However, she
did have a wide range of odd jobs that needed
doing, so we agreed to swap my completion of those
tasks for the table.
My brother and cousin helped me, and in one day we renailed
and tarred the roof, reinforced and waterproofed a leaking
back porch, cleaned the stovepipes and chimney, recaulked
the chimney flashing, checked and adjusted attic
insulation, and rebuilt and hung an exterior door.
Kim was surprised and delighted with the family table our
bartering had provided, and she plans to keep it always
open to company . . . once the stackwall has room for
Although I’d been scrimping and saving for a year to buy
the necessary tools and supplies to start my own
custom-made jewelry business, I had yet to acquire one
of the most needed and expensive items on
my equipment list . . . the electroplating rectifier. I had
come across a set of plans for one, but didn’t
have the electrical know how to complete them.
Then I happened to mention my situation to a friend who
immediately reminded me that her husband is an electronics
technician. He was willing to build the rectifier,
and — since Christmas was right around the corner and he
didn’t have a present for his wife — we were able to work out
a swap of our respective skills.
I bought the parts (which cost $13.65) required for
construction . . . and my friend supplied the gold (from a
ring he no longer wore) for the one-of-a-kind ring that I
designed and cast for his wife!
My experiences with barter have led to what I hope will be
the ultimate trade for me and my family . . . one that will
allow us to relocate to a rural area.
My first swap occurred when a handyman neighbor admired my
strawberry patch, and I agreed to prepare a similar bed on
his land using my compost, worms, and transplants. The
result was a beautiful 10′ X 10′ starting bed that was
expanded to 15′ X 15′ the next year. In return, he used his
welding skill to build me a two-wheel dolly from scrap
steel (it’s strong enough to move a large freezer)
and two wagons for my children.
Since then I’ve traded tilling for produce . . . worked out
a hardcover science fiction book exchange among a growing
circle of people . . . instructed my dentist and his wife
in a series of outdoor survival skills (rock climbing,
foraging, trapping small game, improvising shelters, and
such) in exchange for two years of dental work for
my family . . . and swapped child-/house-sitting with
neighbors for a new bow and quiver.
I’ve had many years of experience as a certified
mid-level medical practitioner (paramedic, military medic,
and I recently graduated from a physician’s assistant
program), so now I’m trying to arrange land and housing in
exchange for my providing primary and emergency health care
(combining conventional Western medicine and wholistic
health-care practices). Several small communities that are
medically under serviced are interested in my proposal, and
I hope to complete a “deal” soon.
When I was laid off last year, I managed to keep my head
above water by making and selling storage boxes built out
of old pallet lumber. One day a satisfied box
customer came by and asked me to repair her porch, and — even
though she told me it would be a month or so before she
could pay me — I agreed to go ahead and do the work, again
using my scrap pallet lumber.
After I’d finished the job, she asked me in for a cup of
coffee . . . and it was then that I spied a stack of old MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazines. She agreed to trade
the magazines for the repairs, and you can imagine my
happiness when I got home and discovered that I now owned
Since then, I’ve traded more time and labor for other books
and tools. But that first swap was the best, because I now
use my scrap pallet lumber for a number of projects found
in my back issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
As a single, working parent of two teenagers (one a college
student and one in junior high), I’m always looking for odd
jobs to supplement my income. Therefore, I didn’t hesitate
to take on weekly bookkeeping for a friend who runs a
delivery service and also sells bees and beekeeping
And, as Christmas drew near, I realized that I had a
perfect opportunity to give my dad something he’d always
wanted … bees! My friend and I agreed to barter my
accounting skill, plus some help with deliveries, for a
complete beekeeping outfit. We boxed up the equipment: a
how-to book, gloves, a smoker, a hat and net, a hive tool,
and a honey cookbook for my mom . . . then I added a poem
that promised delivery of the bees in spring.
Best of all, Dad was doubly delighted when he
heard about the deal . . . since he’s always been a bit of
a horse trader himself!
Since my family is planning a move from the city to a more
self-sufficient environment within the next few years, I
decided to learn something about canning and preserving
food. However, I was appalled at the high price of
supermarket produce (imagine the cost of buying a couple of
bushels of peaches at your local store!) and was further
intimidated when I tallied up the numbers of canning jars
and supplies that I’d need just to get started.
By chance, I mentioned my predicament to a bachelor friend
who has a small backyard orchard (about 15 trees) of
various fruits that he’d been giving away — and even
composting — for lack of knowledge on how to preserve them.
He’d also been picking up canning jars at garage sales and
flea markets for several years in anticipation of doing
something with his harvests.
So we made this happy arrangement: I’d pick the fruit as it
ripened, and can it . . . he would provide the jars, sugar,
and honey . . . and I’d keep half of what I preserved,
returning “my” jars to him as they were emptied.
I gained valuable canning experience . . . learned to dry
fruits and make fruit purees and leathers . . . and ended
up with dozens of quarts of organically grown,
exceptionally tasty canned food. In return, my friend was
finally able to realize the full benefit of his orcharding
efforts. It was such a satisfactory swap that we plan to do
it again next year.