Farm Labor Exchange, Donkey Suit, and Other Barter Agreements

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A fine new donkey suit; a Michigan man traded two burros to a local tailor in exchange for a custom fit silk suit.

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 agreements and skill-and-labor exchanges,” said Bill. “You’re on!” MOTHER EARTH NEWS replied.

Farm Labor Exchange

One of the most important events–both social and
financial–for back-to-the-landers is the farm
auction. Such shindigs offer the newcomer a chance to make
friends, pick up a lot of good information,
and–perhaps–even snag a bargain or two!

After attending several country bid ups, though, we began
to realize something. All too often, the reason for the
sale turned out to be that the farmer in question had gone
broke. And, just as often, the cause of the financial
disaster was overinvestment in expensive (and seldom used)
equipment. So when we bought our 60 acres in the country,
we decided to avoid owning machinery as much as possible.

For the first years–while we were getting to know the
neighbors and learning about farm life–we simply paid
for work that required expensive equipment. Even
that cost less than actually buying the necessary machines.
For the past several years, though, we’ve been able to swap
our time for the use of our neighbor’s farming tools. We
gladly spend several days helping a fellow agrarian do his
work, knowing that–in return–we’ll do much the
same work at home using the same equipment: his! Our
assistance has become as indispensable to him as his
tractors and implements are to us because we all save
money–and enjoy a strong sense of community in the

We also barter for homebaked bread (and fresh milk and
eggs). It sure beats paying high prices plus sales tax
for stale supermarket produce.


Donkey Suit

My favorite swap took place back In 1967, when my family
and I had a farm in Perry, Michigan. A friend (who was
“bucks up” at the time) invited me along on a visit to a
Hong Kong tailor who was holding an open house in nearby
Lansing. My friend intended to place an order, while
I–though curious–was broke.

Well, we traveled into town, looked at the goods
(fantastic fabrics!), and my buddy decided on several
garments. After the tailor had taken the necessary
measurements and the financial arrangements were made, the
tape-wielder asked me if I wanted a suit. I sure did, I
replied, but I couldn’t afford his prices. Just then a
thought struck me! I had a pair of Sicilian burros that I’d
been trying to sell (unsuccessfully) for several months.
How about a deal, I proposed?

The tailor’s face actually lit up! He said that he’d always
wanted to swap something, but that I was the first customer
who’d ever asked. Well, before long I was all measured up
for a custom-made silk suit, and off we went. The next
morning the Hong Kong representative pulled up to the farm
in a Lincoln Continental with a U-Haul trailer in tow. We
loaded the burros, and he headed off for Arizona with a
gift for his grandchildren that I’ll bet they never forgot.
Three weeks later I received the suit along with an
invoice marked “Paid in Full. Amount: Two Burros”. Now
there’s an outstanding swap if I’ve ever made one!


Alaska Barter

I live in Uganik Bay, on the northwest side of Kodiak
Island. It’s a raw but awesome land, where life is
controlled by the tides and by the sun’s position in the
sky. Although we’re only about 60 miles from town, the
settlement is pretty inaccessible. There are no roads
to this part of the island, and the only way to reach our
home is by float plane or boat.

In the summer, the bay–30 miles long and 10 miles
across at the mouth–is alive and jumping as tenders,
seiners, fishermen, and cannery workers follow the salmon
runs. But when the salmon are far upstream and the leaves
begin to turn, the population dwindles to about a dozen
households. We support ourselves by hunting and
trapping, and consuming whatever larder we have stored up
during the summer months.

In this remote corner of Alaska, the barter system is a way
of life. It is not uncommon for neighboring fish camps to
trade groceries–fresh venison for eggs and produce
from town, or garden goods for store-bought ones–and
it’s a much-practiced custom for neighbors to trade work.
For example, help on the repair of a skiff will bring aid
in cutting a firewood supply. Books and other scarce
reading materials make the circuit year round, as does
children’s clothing. The lack of currency (not to mention
places to spend it!) makes this swapping necessary as well
as convenient.

Our most unusual and successful barter involved the
services of a bush pilot. As debts for plane rides in the
busy summer months piled up, we began to look for an
alternative mode of payment to our friend. He was delighted
when we offered a cross-fox fur from this winter’s catch,
and when the snows came we were just as delighted to
fulfill our part of the bargain. Now we try to trade our
winter’s harvest for needed goods or services whenever

By the way, I hear on the radio that there is now a
statewide organization that encourages Alaskans to use the
barter system. I hope it is as successful as our trades
have been!


Cow Trading

Along the upper Columbia River, where stores are often few
and far between, barter is more a necessity than an art.
One of my favorite swaps involved a young heifer. She was a
silly half-wild Charolais and Hereford cross with no
respect for fences and an eager eye for that elusive
“greener grass.”

Shortly after we got her, the beast decided to head for our
neighbor’s field. She proved skittish when we tried to
round her up, and (after two days of chasing after her) we
decided to “bring the mountain to Mahomet”. Our friends
next door swapped us a tape deck and a rifle, and the
heifer was theirs. Easier said than done, though. In
short order she was through the fence and back to our

Since it seemed easier to trade her than to return her,
that durn fool calf was swapped back and forth three times
in the next six months. Strangely enough, every trade left
two satisfied barterers, one rid of a “silly, breachy
heifer” and the other in possession of a “fine beef cow”!


Live-In Caretakers

My husband Tom and I (we’re Peace Corps volunteers working
with a Gardens and Nutrition program in the rural highlands
of Guatemala) came across what we think is a pretty good
international swap.

A Guatemalan friend of ours (the proprietor of the local
hardware store) owns a couple of acres planted in young
apple trees. The land also sports a four-room house with
tile roof and floors (a lovely place to laze in a hammock
and watch the rain wash the pine-covered slopes) and a huge
barn. One can pick apples, peaches, and pears from the
porch of the house. There are lush roses, fuschias,
hibiscus, poinsettias, and citrus trees, plus a chorus of
exotic birds. The spread also includes plenty of land
suitable for gardening and raising lots of chickens and

All this is ours rent-free! Don Haroldo asked us to
live in this little paradise, without cost, and all he
wanted in return was for us to keep an eye on his apple
trees. We love our “new” house so much that we’ve
volunteered to paint and plaster the building, dig a
latrine, develop the existing wells, and generally clean
and fix the place up. Our patron is happy to provide all
the materials we need for the task.

In addition, our trading partner is interested in working
with us on projects such as MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Hydraulic Ram Pump, which he wants to build so he can
irrigate his apple trees from the stream during the dry

We may be a long way from home here in our “mini-Eden,” but
we’ve discovered that the age-old practice of barter is not
bounded by borders or language.

Chichicastenago, Guatemala