Successful Swaps: Barter Instead of Buy

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers share their most successful swaps.

In a past issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Bill Wodraska shared some of his thoughts regarding one of mankind’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.

Meals for Handy Men

We have quite a swap going here every Sunday (and holidays too).

I’m considered a good cook . . . and with our garden, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, and so forth we usually have plenty of food. On Sundays I prepare a meal large enough for 20 to 25 people and invite a regular group of relatives and friends-most of whom are our children’s age-with huge appetites, strong muscles, and plenty of energy. In return for a few hours of work (tilling the garden, working on the cars, repairing the roof, mowing the yard, helping kill and dress the birds and rabbits . . . the list is endless) these wonderful people get all the food they can eat plus the enjoyment from a few games of croquet, volleyball, badminton, or baseball in our big yard.

My husband and I are semi-disabled and don’t know how we’d get the work done without the generous help of these young people. Sometimes my husband does the cooking on the charcoal grill and I take the day off just to visit with our many guests . . . but either way we know that through these get-togethers we receive much more pleasure-and help – than our cooking warrants. What’s more, we think the young folks enjoy themselves, too.


Stonington, Ill.

Clothes for Hay

Barter really became important to Ken and me on our small farm in Ontario . . . which provided adequate space for our two goats to range but wasn’t large enough for us to raise our own hay and straw for winter.

One evening while visiting some Mennonite farming neighbors, we discovered that the wife was preparing to drag her husband off to the city for the ordeal of fittin’ him up with new fancy duds for an up-and-coming family wedding. Since he was happiest driving his tractor around in muck-covered overalls, a trip to the city-for him-would have wasted valuable working hours . . . and spending money on something he hardly valued in the first place seemed like throwing hard-earned cash away.

However, Ken had two very expensive suits from his city slicker days just collecting dust in the closet. So we traded this attire for all the hay and straw our goats would need for the winter. Needless to say, all four of us were relieved.

After spending just a brief time in that part of Canada, we found that swapping is an integral part of a Mennonite farming community. By “always lending a helping hand to someone in want”, these people can trust that all their needs will be met in “right timing”.

For example, the same friend I’ve already mentioned had an accident at planting time and was laid up in a hospital for months. Without anyone’s asking, all the neighbors chipped in to help with the chores and harvesting of crops. At other times the entire community has turned out for a barn raising the day after one of the structures has burned down. Although the favors may not be returned immediately, services are always eventually repaid.

We were grateful we could feel free to turn to practiced farmers during our initial back-to-the-land experience. Quite often Ken was asked to help with haying or with especially “sticky” jobs like castrating pigs. We had our garden plowed over and received several delicious, mouthwatering, country-cooked meals and an abundance of manure in return.

Recently I decided I needed further training in “curative painting” (to help fulfill our dream of supplying a creative and “therapeutic” farm environment for foster children) . . . but the plan meant moving to England which financially seemed out of the question. Ken was also concerned about whether he’d be able to continue working creatively as a carpenter. With a certain amount of faith we inquired at a school, and-amazingly enough-this particular training center needed an experienced carpenter to help build some very innovative structures. In return for Ken’s labor, they offered to pay my tuition and whatever else we needed for room and board. So . . . here we are in England, renting a small cottage on another farm. And all this “good” has come from the old-but-thriving-art of barter.


Forest Row, Sussex


Livestock for Chores

After buying our land two years ago we didn’t have any money left over for stocking the farm . . . and thought it would be quite some time before we ever got the homestead established. However-to our surprise-we got into the swing of things rather quickly ’cause we had the swappinest neighbors you ever saw!

For example, one neighbor traded us a steer for doing his chores for him while he was away a month . . . and we swapped one year’s use of our pasture for a beautiful Guernsey milk cow and calf. For a while we kept another farmer’s chicks in with ours and received 20 of the birds in return. A city friend gave us half the meat from his calf, which we brought up on our land . . . and offered us one weaner pig if we’d raise another for him. By lending a hand haying we received all the hay we needed that winter . . . and even got some help butchering our first animals in exchange for some of the meat. And-of course-we traded milk, eggs, vegetables, and fruit for all kinds of smaller items and services.

We really believe barter is the fastest and most satisfying way we can ever reach self-sufficiency!


Rice, Wash.

Goat Swapping

Although swapping seems to be a daily way of life for us (we trade milk from our goats for eggs when our own hens molt, labor for vegetables that we haven’t thought to plant, and even excess rabbit manure for homemade jelly, jam, and relish), the real action seems to center around our dairy goats.

We’d never thought of keeping goats until four and half years ago when a fellow came to look at a beautiful male German shepherd pup we had for sale. The man liked the dog and the feeling seemed mutual, but-as sometimes happens-the guy had trouble finding the price we were asking for the animal. So he proposed trading us a pair of young Toggenburg wethers for the pup. (After all, we had a lot of brush that wasn’t getting cleared and goats are well known for making a meal of such goodies.) The idea was worth considering . . . and within an hour we had lost one pup and added two goats to our menagerie.

A few weeks later we decided the critters were really rather fun to have around. After talking to a few people who owned milk goats, the idea of having one of the four-legged dairy plants on the farm was more enticing than we could stand . . . so we arranged to swap the brush goats for a young doe and brought our first milk producer home.

Soon after making that deal we learned about a woman with too many goats and not enough room to raise chickens. A little bit of thought and a phone call later, we were on our way to exchange 15 freshly killed fryers and five stewing liens for a beautiful Saanen doe (which was three months fresh and producing 4-1/2 quarts of sweet milk a day). Our promise to deliver two dozen eggs a week to our new-found friend netted our doe a breeding to any of the four bucks at her farm.

We now have four and a half years of goat swapping under our belts. It’s been fun, exciting, educational . . . and profitable since we never lack milk, meat, hides, or the joy of having these sweet-natured creatures around. In our present herd of seven, five does are expecting this spring and summer. Every time we look at them-and often as I sit milking one – we think, “And all because of a darned ole pup!”

Oh, yes, I mustn’t forget: we’re branching out again. You see, it seems there’s this fellow who wants a goat, but he doesn’t have the cash. But he does have these sheep ….

Little Eden Farm

Poulsbo, Wash.

Chores for Lambs

When we moved from the city, the only thing we knew about country living was that it sure was cheaper than our life in town.

Then a good friend told us that every full-fledged farmstead has to have a dog, and promptly gave us a German shepherd puppy. Well . . . anyone who’s ever owned a large pup knows how frolicsome they are and, unfortunately, ours soon romped with an elderly neighbor’s sheep with so much enthusiasm that he killed two baby lambs.

Of course we offered to keep better control of our dog and to pay whatever the lambs were worth, but our proposal didn’t set too well with the neighbor. The man finally said, “You can work it out,” and, though my husband held a full-time job in a town 30 miles away, lie found a few minutes every day to help with the old man’s chores. At first he was grumpy, but as my husband showed up every day and worked as hard as if he were being paid, the neighbor grew friendlier and friendlier.

Those two lambs have been “paid for” for six years now, and during that time our friendship has become stronger. We’ve swapped favors back and forth till they’re not even called favors anymore.

To top if off, this “grumpy” elderly couple has taught us more about country living than any book ever could have. If we’d paid them for the lambs with money our wonderful relationship might never have gotten started.

Moral: The best thing about swapping is that you never know exactly where it’ll lead.

R.K. M.


Work for Materials

We were determined to break free of the monthly rip-off known as rent, and-after only one day of looking-found an abandoned house (in disrepair) with a large yard suitable for a garden. Via the local tax office we located the owner, who agreed to let us live rent free as long as we continued to make improvements and repairs (using our own materials).

Acquiring building supplies was quite a challenge, but we found that the local military base (Ft. Dix) was getting rid of dozens of World War 11 barracks for token legal fees of $1.00 on the condition that everything be removed within 60 days. The deal provided us with thousands of board feet of lumber free for the hauling.

Three other valuable resources-a used pickup, an unlimited number of dead trees for firewood, and an inexhaustible source of free horse manure-prompted other successful barters.

A day spent moving furniture earned us a plumber’s help and instruction for fixing some water pipes that had burst during a freeze. With my truck, my chain saw, and my back I cleared a wooded lot and received more firewood, a weld on my cracked motorcycle muffler, a friend, and a rusty wood-burning water heater (which would have been adequate payment in itself). I’ve also hauled some manure for a load of topsoil to fortify our sandy garden. And, last – but not least-we traded a rick of firewood for a long, slender water tank, two framed windows, and enough hoses, clamps, and fittings to assemble our solar water heater . . . which now supplies us with thirty gallons of piping hot water a day. (For a stamped, self-addressed envelope we’ll swap information and a drawing on how we built it.)

Besides being fun, our bartering has produced quite a few other benefits: a former eyesore in the neighborhood is being recycled into a useful dwelling, we’re encouraging more people to try wood heat, organic gardening, and composting, and we’ve developed acquaintances which a cash deal would not have made possible. It really pays to take the initiative and suggest a swap.


Browns Mills, N.J.

Sewing for Work

Some years back when our children were small and quite rough on clothing, my husband and I were faced with either buying their wearing apparel on credit or sending me off to work. After figuring it all up, however, we found I couldn’t afford to get a job. I’d need to purchase fancier clothing for myself and deduct a sitter’s fee (for after school hours) from my paycheck.

About this time I happened to mention to a neighbor that I was making my son a coat . . . and after seeing my work she asked me to sew a dress for her daughter. At the outset I only asked leer-and the first few “customers” I had-to supply twice the quantity of material needed for the garment (so I could complete an outfit for the neighbor’s child and one for my own at the same time). But as word got around that I could sew I ended up with more jobs than I could handle. Finally I had to start charging for my work.

One of our most recent swaps enabled us to salvage my husband’s favorite chair, which-although old-is still sound. Local merchants wanted over $100 to re-cover the piece . . . but I came across some fabric for $25 and Homer found a friend who could do the reupholstery in exchange for some electrical work. Since my husband is an electrician (among other things), we swapped.

Over our 32 years of marriage we’ve sure been able to live much better for less . . . thanks to barter. I’m glad to say that our children are following suit.


Dunedin, Fla.

Truck Driving for Fertilizer

Pastures need fertilizer every year, but most of us self-sufficient folks have only enough barn manure to work into our gardens . . . and very little money to spend on commercial chemicals. So we’ve arranged a deal with our local dairyman whereby my husband borrows his tractor and “honey wagon” to bring a large load of manure home each afternoon. One load spread on the pasture every day for 20 days keeps our 15 acres green and lush all year long.

To pay for the manure, my spouse drives a silage truck for the farm during corn picking season. Almost any dairy could use extra help at such times, and will gladly barter . . . maybe even for a couple of calves.

Cows also freshen off and on all during the year, especially in spring and summer. Since their first milk (colostrum) is considered unfit to be processed and is thrown away, we got permission to place barrels at convenient places in the barns for the collection of this waste milk. Now we have all the protein-rich food our pigs can drink (which cuts our feed bill by three-fourths). And while the dairy asks no pay for the refuse – as its owner is glad that the waste can be used – we still like to take the hands a few packages of sausage, ham, and barbecue when we butcher one of our milk-fattened porkers.


Horse Shoe, N.C.

Landscaping for Medical Services

We once made a very unexpected swap as I was on a stretcher heading for an emergency operation.

The physician-whom I’d never met before-was making conversation to keep me calm . . . and I remarked that we had come to Georgia so my husband could learn the landscaping trade from a friend of ours. Right then and there the doctor asked if my husband would be interested in trading yard work for his part of the medical bill. And, just as I was wheeled into the operating room, I said, “Yes, I’m sure he would.”

The surgeon (who saved my life) was so happy with his landscaping job that he later accepted a piece of jewelry in exchange for an operation on a jeweler’s wife. I’m thrilled that our barter pleased him enough to make him want to try the idea again.

And so have I! Since my swap with the doctor, I’ve had the opportunity to crochet a big, double bed-sized blanket for an artist who painted oil portraits of my husband and me and pastel potraits of our children. Her skill took more training, but my contribution required more hours to produce.

Does anyone know of a trade market for live entertainment talents?


Macon, Ga.

Income Taxes for Jewelry

The arrangement may not be your run-of-the-mill swap, but I’m a certified public accountant-and a devout MOTHER reader who has a bartering agreement with a young jeweler. I prepare his income tax returns and provide other accounting advice it exchange for a piece of custom jewelry. The deal benefits us both: he receives professional financial services . . . and I have some of the most exquisite creations obtainable.

Once I even traded work on a tax return for an original oil painting. It made a great gift!


Wichita, Kan.

Tuition Barter

As a struggling author, I was surprised and delighted to see a writer’s workshop offered here in our small mountain community. I managed to put aside the necessary $25 for the course . . . only to find out later that I’d misunderstood the amount and the fee was actually $100. I was stunned and disappointed at not being able to afford the class.

The man in charge of the group said that each member’s “completion” certificate was rather unique: either a rejection slip (I already had plenty of those) or a check from a publisher.

Now we have an agreement: at the end of the session I trade him either a rejection slip or the full $100 tuition out of a publisher’s check of at least that amount. That unusual barter has made it possible for me to attend the ten-week workshop.


Hathaway Pines, Calif.

Work for Rent

We’ve been bartering off and on for the last three years. It kinda gets in your blood. Now, when we need something, we immediately start looking to see what we have to swap.

Many of our deals involve small items like eggs for milk, apples, or homemade ice cream. And, often, local secondhand stores will eagerly exchange electric tools or new and modern-looking items for sturdier-but somewhat blemished-older hand implements.

One of our earliest and biggest swaps occurred after our elderly Chevy froze up and we needed transportation. We traded a fine old camper that we’d built and lived in (which was just sitting in the backyard at the time) for a ’68 Datsun that’s been getting us around ever since.

Back in our Saturday Market days we exchanged a leather chair we’d made for a set of rings. We never would have shelled out money for jewelry, but since we liked bartering we figured at least we could trade the rings-which were easy to-carry around-for something we needed. As it turned out, though, we were married with the rings (instead of using something from a cracker box, we had fine turquoise to signify our relationship).

At present, we trade 35 hours of orchard work for a month’s rent in a country house. And the owner has liked our efforts enough to sign a sharecropping contract with us: we do the work on 20 of his acres (using his equipment) and collect half the profits. The cash will sure come m handy as we get ready to make the big move to our own homestead!


The Dalles, Ore.

Firewood for Clothes

Recently I held a garage sale, and-as is always the case-I couldn’t sell all my merchandise. I’d just about decided to donate the leftovers to a local charity when an idea hit me: why not try to trade the goods first?

Amish people in our area own the sawmill where I buy our winter’s supply of firewood. And, since the women restyle hand-me-down garments to suit their lifestyle (or make quilts from the material), I asked the owner of the mill if he’d be willing to swap firewood for my 20 boxes of old clothing. He jumped at the chance and I drove away with an IOU for 15 trunk loads of firewood. I thought myself quite lucky to have made such a great deal and the sawmill owner undoubtedly believes he got the best of the bargain too . . . but who wants to argue about it’!


Mt. Pleasant Mills, Pa.

Tree Removal for a Baby

Our very best swap (out of hundreds) is now 15 years old and 6’5″ tall. Darach, our son, was “traded” for a dangerous dead elm tree that was causing lawsuit problems for the new obstetrician in town.

My husband had already bartered his tree surgeon’s skills with other people . . . so when he realized that the doctor had no cash for the removal of the tree-which had to be done-he suggested exchanging the work for obstetric care for our next child (who was still only a thought at the time). The young physician was excited and relieved by the offer.

Nine and half months later we sealed the deal . . . and know for sure that we’ll never be able to top that one?


Clarksville, N.H.

Firewood for Transportation

My husband car-pools to and from work with a friend. For quite some time he paid the driver $10 a month to help cover expenses, but since we own several acres of woods the two men eventually struck up a bargain . . . and now my husband swaps a cord of firewood for his daily transportation.

Another friend plans to help us paint our house in exchange for more of our firewood and a few beers.

Still another friend lets us store part of our homegrown produce in her freezer. In return she gets to pick some of the fresh vegetables from our summer garden for herself.

But our best swap of all occurred when my husband gave his parents 5 of our 20 acres in exchange for 18 years of their raising him. Nice, huh?


Neosho, Mo.

Grading for a Barn

After thinking and planning and living with a dream for a long time, we’ve finally found a place to call home: our owner-built house on 10 acres of land.

The most exciting and fascinating lessons we’ve learned in this northern California community have dealt with barter . . . the non-inflationary, government-free art of making friends while at the same time redistributing goods where they’re needed.

For example, the man who showed us our land owned a big tractor and blade suitable for grading out the road to our place and cutting a new drive down to our building site. At first he wanted to charge $125 for the work, but one day the businessman proposed a trade: he’d handle the grading job if we’d build him a barn when we finished our house.

Of course we agreed to the deal . . . and arranged to work at an hourly rate and charge him for any “extra” time we put in after paying our debt. The trusting soul waited the whole summer while we put up our own house, but before the winter rains came we did construct a 14′ X 16′ barn for his horse and equipment. Though our “wages” came to more than his “fee”, we swapped the difference for lumber that he had lying around.

Since that first swap we’ve made many other barters. We refinished a chair for a neighbor in exchange for some factory windows that we’ll soon use in a greenhouse. And even more recently we swapped our carpentry skills for more tractor work, a few old tools, brick for our hearth, and sheet rock for some of our walls.

Another of our neighbors (who holds down an 8 to 5 commuting job) doesn’t have a lot of spare time . . . but he does have a small track layer tractor and a lot of raw materials that he’s scavenged from here and there over the years. So by contributing a little labor to his projects, we’ve received things like windows or tractor work at a good price. Just a few months ago we traded a day’s work on the adjoining property for a 350-gallon water tank which the man wasn’t using in the first place.

No matter who we deal with, swapping goods and services with others certainly gives us a good, self-sufficient feeling. And when everything falls apart on the coming economic doomsday, skills in this unstructured system of exchange may be even more important than paper money.


Garberville, Calif.

Baby sitting for Translation Services

About three years ago we discovered that our neighbors from Mexico were having great difficulty filling out the many forms that our society demands. Their English was adequate to handle most face to face confrontations, but all the paperwork-from their children’s school, the tax offices, etc.-was about to snow them under.

Recognizing their problem, I started to drop by every few days to see if I could help them with written tasks or answer the family’s many questions about this country. They, in turn, offered to care for my youngsters whenever I needed a sitter.

In this swap we’ve come out far, far ahead. Besides having someone to care for our children, we’ve gained warm and true friends who have taught us so much about the Mexican culture.

Another successful bartering arrangement stems from our wine making activities. We’ve found that most of our friends seem more than happy to swap all their empty wine bottles for a couple of full jugs of our homemade beverage. And when harvest time rolls around each year, these same people also help us pick our grapes and go home loaded down with fruit for making their own juice or wine. We’ll even throw in the use of our crusher and press if they need the equipment.

A. C.

Temecula, Calif.