How to Barter for Everything

A New Mexican family shares how to forego money and trade for everything. Mark and Kay Matthews used their bartering skills to provide food, home repairs, education, medical care and even their house.

| February/March 1993

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    Mark with some of his bartering buddies.

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Over the past 20 years, my husband Mark and I have bartered everything from a two-week vacation in a mountain cabin to a hernia operation for Mark. Trading our time, labor, and skills seems so much more intimate and humane then selling ourselves on the free market for money (worth much less, I must admit). So that's why we moved here, to northern New Mexico, where people still maintain a diverse enough lifestyle to keep bartering alive.

Back in the early '70s, when we started out in Placitas, New Mexico, a small Hispanic village at the north end of the Sandia Mountains, we didn't have many skills to offer in trade. What we did have was a desire to live a simpler life in a community more in touch with its environment—the antidote to our lives as suburban children of the '50s. Placitas provided a community with 200-year ties to the land, where people tended their gardens and orchards, raised chickens and goats, and took care of their own needs as best they could. Surviving on part-time jobs in Albuquerque, the state's largest city 25 miles away, we rented a 100-yearold house in the village, turned over a garden plot, and began our apprenticeship in subsistence living.

When our roof started leaking like a sieve, our landlord traded us a month's rent to fix it. To figure out how to fix it in the future, we took care of our friend Tom's kids in exchange for his expertise. When the leech lines blocked up, we bartered another month's rent. I'll never forget those days in the middle of January, digging through the frozen ground to replace old tar-paper pipe with PVC. We even had Mark's 20-year-old cousin, Marian (who was visiting from New York), out there with us, picking and shoveling away.

While learning the joys of house repair, Mark and I were initiated into the rites of the acequia, or irrigation system. A mayordomo controlled the water rights, determining how much and on which days you could irrigate your garden and orchard. On the day you needed to irrigate, you had to track him down in order to request the water. Then you had to make sure that your neighbor, after seeing the water come down the ditch, didn't decide to irrigate his own garden as well. Finally, you had to direct the water once it got to the garden so that it didn't run straight through the lettuce and drown it, missing the corn altogether.

Lacking an orchard, we soon worked out a deal with our neighbor down the road to irrigate her orchard in return for as much fruit as we could pick. Anne's orchard was substantial: peaches, sweet and sour cherries, three kinds of plums, four kinds of apples, apricots, and pears. With one-and-a-half water rights, she was entitled to a lot of water, and it took us an entire day each week to manage it (or attempt to manage it, I should say). Every Monday was a battle with the gophers. We would open up the first compuerta (head gate), and then watch the water disappear down a gopher hole before it ever touched a tree. No sooner did we plug that hole than the water disappeared down a second, thwarting us again. After spending all morning chasing the water around in order to find and fill gopher holes, we'd sit back and rest, only to find a whole row of pears completely bereft of water. Then we would begin again. It was still a good trade, however, judging by the amount of fruit we ate—dried, canned, and frozen.

We also used bartering to build a new house. After a few years, our 100-year-old rented adobe began to lose its initial charm. Three major roof repairs, a blocked septic tank, and constant dirt drifting down from the ceiling (flat-roofed adobe houses are often covered with two feet of dirt between the ceiling and the tarred roof, acting as insulation) convinced us it was time to build our own house and put to use all the building skills we had acquired. Placitas is an original Spanish land grant, and most of the land in the village is part of the San Antonio de Las Huertas grant, not for sale. Although our landlord, an Anglo from Albuquerque, owned a beautiful piece of land adjacent to the house, he refused to sell it. We finally settled on five acres, a mile from the village, located off a forest access road leading into the Sandia Mountains. A few other families had already built there, and water and electricity were available if you could pay the price to sink a well and extend the underground wire. (Unfortunately, electric companies and well diggers aren't all that interested in barter.)

Once we found the money to pay them, though, it was time for some real trading, which meant working on all our friends' houses while they helped us on ours. This included filing cement block, laying adobes, installing window frames, running wire, fitting pipes, cutting vigas (wooden beams that support the ceiling), pouring bond beams, plastering, laying brick floors, and installing wood stoves. Our friend Tom proved invaluable. He and his family lived in a valley above the village where they worked constantly on their dome, a dwelling built of colorful junked car-tops, always in need of repair. I think we actually paid Tom wages for a while, but for the most part we traded labor, adobe for adobe (he was building an adobe addition to the dome), nail for nail. When we got to the bond beam, the layer of cement that sits on top of the adobe walls to hold the roof beams, we recruited several other home builders to haul the buckets of cement up our walls, as we would theirs.

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