Successful Swaps: Tips for Bartering

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There's no need for money when you can trade goods or services instead.

Thrifty MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers share their successful swaps of services or products for needed goods. There’s no need for money when ingenuity and willingness to trade are brought to the table!

Trade Cherry Picking for Fruit

Six years ago, when my husband and I were first married, we found ourselves with very little money … but lots of time and enthusiasm. We frequently took walks through an older residential section in our area, and–on one such occasion–noticed a beautiful little cherry tree virtually covered with fruit on its topmost branches (the lower portion had apparently already been picked).

As we stood gazing upward at those luscious-looking red morsels–and dreaming of all the treats we could make with them an idea began to form in our heads: We’d see if the owner would let us pick the fruit in exchange for a share of the harvest. “It can’t hurt to ask”, we thought, and–a bit hesitantly–knocked on the nearest front door.

An elderly woman answered, and we awkwardly explained our proposal. She told us that she’d picked only the lower cherries because–as much as she hated to see the remainder go to waste–she was afraid she might accidentally fall from the top of the tree. “But you two go ahead,” she said , “and don’t save any more than a bucketful for my friends and me … that’ll be ‘aplenty'”. We ran back to our apartment and soon returned with pails, dish pans, boxes, and anything else that could conceivably hold a mess of the fruit.

Several hours later, we descended from our treetop perches . . . tired, sticky, and with cherries packed into both our stomachs and all the containers we’d brought with us. We again knocked at the door of our new friend, and–after showing her our sizable harvest-asked if she didn’t want more than just a bucketful. She said no, but that if we’d wait a minute she’d empty our pail and return it to us. When she came back, our “empty” container was holding a sack of warm cookies that the lady had obviously baked while we were up in her tree!

We’ve discovered many other fruit-laden treetops since that time, and almost all of them have been owned by a grandma or grandpa who couldn’t risk the hazards of climbing. Of course, we’ve enjoyed a lot of free fruit as a result … but the real reward has been the pleasurable company of so many fine folks we might not have otherwise met!

Trade Labor for Food

I don’t know … maybe living in Maine makes me a “Yankee trader” by osmosis, but–for whatever reason–I’ve always traded for the things I need. Just last year, in fact, I made the following very successful (and, due to my financial condition, very necessary) swaps:

[1] Built and drywalled two upstairs rooms in a home, for which I received a 1969 Ford pickup.
[2] Drywalled the first-floor rooms, of the same house, for a huge automatic egg incubator.
[3] Did some electrical wiring work, in return for a calf.
[4] Trucked a boar and sow around, and took home a piglet.
[5] Exchanged eight meat rabbits for a second piglet.
[6] Rototilled a garden, for four tons of hay.
[ 7] Helped clear out a tumbledown garage, for the use of a tractor and mower so I could cut all that hay.
[8] Picked ten boxes of apples for the owners of the orchard, and took two additional boxes of the fruit for myself.
[9] Repaired some plumbing in return for a supply of butternut squash.

As many of MOTHER’s readers know, the key to successfully raising a meat animal is to keep the costs of purchasing and feeding the critter low … and I’ve been able to do just that by way of barter. Whenever a potential transaction pops up, I never fail to ask “What will you take for it?” instead of “How much?”!

Trade Pork for Needed Goods

Three years ago we made the “big move” from city to country living. At first we tried to handle all the chores and “fix-ups” ourselves–both to save money and to acquire some badly needed skills–but now we realize that well just never be able to do some jobs as well (or as efficiently) as a better–trained person. Still . . . how do you afford help when the engine won’t run or the sewing gets too complicated? Barter, that’s how!

Our homegrown pork is so much better than store-bought meat that there’s simply no comparison… and all our city-bred friends who drop by for Sunday dinner have discovered that fact for themselves. So we always get an extra weaner pig for autumn butchering, knowing that someone will offer to trade us goods or services for that fine table fare.

Last year half a porker went towards the labor for a valve job on the truck and the other half was exchanged for new upholstery in the camper. The preceding year we traded hog meat for all the canned fruit and vegetables we could eat, plus lawnmower parts and an overhaul. Our two ewes joined the farm on a pork trade and we hope the list will go on and on.

Since we really enjoy raising the animals–and our friends feel they’re getting the all-time best of the deal–we’ve found that barter works as good as gold!

Trade Salvage for Food

Last summer my husband and I met a young European woman in desperate need of help. Her husband–recently unemployed–was out of town looking for a job while she remained home to care for three small children. The mother was unable to work herself because the necessary papers and alien card were tied up in bureaucratic red tape.

We didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until we stopped to visit her, saw the kids scraping the bottom of an empty peanut butter jar, and discovered that the family was unable to pay bills or to buy food. To make matters worse, the woman had no relatives in this country she could turn to for help.

Since Warren (my husband) and I aren’t rich folks, we knew we couldn’t support four additional people indefinitely but we certainly were NOT going to allow the family to starve. Somehow we scraped together several bags of groceries and a little money to tide the household over for a few days. Then the bartering began!

Warren has an uncanny ability for scrounging up goods that nobody else wants at either bargain prices or at the cost of a little (or, in some cases, a lot of) elbow grease. All that summer he collected wood, doors, paneling, light fixtures, and countless other miscellaneous items from a downtown urban renewal site.’ For absolutely rock bottom prices the contractor-who held aft salvage rights to the stores and apartments being torn down-allowed my husband to go into the buildings before demolition and take whatever he could tear out and pile onto our trader.

In his travels throughout the abandoned stores, Warren picked up new–but slightly damaged-baby carriages, strollers, cribs, and cradles. At the time we had no need for the items ourselves. .. we just couldn’t let them be buried by the wrecking crane. Their usefulness was demonstrated later when a church group took the articles and kindly provided bags of groceries for the hungry family. They then repaired the baby equipment to give to other needy households.

As the result of other excursions to the doomed downtown area, we soon owned a whole trailerful of eight-foot and four-foot fluorescent fighting fixtures–with bulbs–and an industrial timer. A farmer friend installed several of the lights and the timer in his milking barn and-in return–let us pick for two days in his field of sweet corn. The European woman, a friend, Warren, and I gathered enough corn to supply us all for the winter. We even managed to swap several bushels of the fresh vegetable to the same church group (for their Saturday night farmers’ market) in exchange for more groceries.

Later the manager of a local wholesale grocery supply house–who was budding a new home at the time–jumped at the chance to trade all the cartons of canned goods and produce we could stuff into our VW (and we’ve had a lot of practice packing a VW!) for one toilet in excellent shape (again, taken from a building slated for demolition). As extra insurance, my husband spent about an hour helping the man pour concrete for a new loading dock and was promised more food–if needed–for the future.

As you can see, trading fed this unfortunate family for several months. A very sad story ended happily thanks to some good, old-fashioned bartering and good, old-fashioned hard work.

Trade Vegetables for Fruit

Last year’s garden yielded bumper crops of green beans, carrots, and beets–much more than my family and friends combined could use–so I began looking for ways to barter the excess produce. Before long, I’d made two very successful swaps!

I traded twenty pounds of green beans to a local dairy farmer who has a lot of fruit trees on her land … and in exchange, she let me pick all the pears, cherry plums, and mulberries that I wanted.

I still had a sizable quantity of carrots and beets left, however, so I went to our local health food store and talked to the owner. She’s an elderly lady who doesn’t have the time or space to grow her own food, and when I suggested that I swap her my organically grown produce for items in her store of equal value, she happily agreed!

In both cases, everyone involved was satisfied, and we all intend to continue our trading … as well as our new-found friendships!

Start a Baby-Sitting Co-op

I belong to a baby-sitting co-op in which mothers of young children “swap” a few hours’ time to keep doctor appointments, run errands, or just relax without denting the family’s budget for child care. Needless to say, I find the system very rewarding … and my children enjoy the scheme since they’re able to make new friends and share time with playmates they wouldn’t otherwise see very often. Some members join just for this reason . . . since, especially in the kind of rural area where we live, it’s often difficult to expose a pre-schooler to a “group environment” without nursery schools.

Here’s how our system works: A group of interested women–who learn about the coming organization of a co-op through ads in the feed store, grocery market, and church paper–get together to lay out the ground rules (what’s expected of the sitter and mother, general rules of behavior and discipline, etc.).

We then issue about 20 units of sitting time to each member: our group uses two-inch squares of construction paper–each representing 1/2 hour of sitting for one child–as scrip (try a different color for each participant . . . it’s fun to see who has what later on). Finally, distribute a list of the mothers, their phone numbers, and the times they’re available to all members.

The simple arrangement works well for two to twenty mothers … providing all have an equal chance to earn and spend scrip. At the outset we hold a few coffee gatherings in various homes to “break the ice” and ensure that the women will use the services of all participants. If a member ever runs out of paper tokens, she can spread the word that she’d appreciate first consideration when a sitter is needed.

We circulate the scrip until the squares become dog-eared … and then call a meeting to re-issue new “money” and continue our wonderful swapping experience.

Trade Hauling Services for Building Supplies

Over the years I’ve gone through many trucks – each just a little bigger than the last–until now I own a used diesel rig. When I first bought the vehicle, I traded some old pickups and parts to a friend who owned a junkyard in return for a 20-foot flat deck. That truck and trailer have been a real blessing in getting materials for the homestead that my lady and I are reclaiming from the British Columbian forest.

For example, I once transported a carload of cows to Vancouver for a local farmer–and came back with a shipment for someone else–in exchange for lumber and expenses. Most of my arrangements, however, are for shorter runs like hauling hay in return for getting my fields plowed, or moving a small cabin in trade for 2-1/2 cords of birch firewood and a cream separator.

Last fall when we needed some manure for our garden and field, I found a farmer who swapped us 10 tons for a promise to transport something at a later date. Then, when word spread this spring that I was going to haul in more of the fertilizer, folks of all kinds began to ask if I’d bring in some for them too. By the time I finished I’d carried 33 tons of manure, paid my expenses, made a few dollars, and met a lot of new friends. I repaid the farmer by picking up 5 tons of seed potatoes 250 miles away . . . and when I unloaded them at his place we refilled the truck once again with his good ole downhome fertilizer. The next day I sold enough of the load to pay for fuel and took the rest home.

Recently, while helping to clean up a newly purchased farm, I agreed to haul away the “junk” which had accumulated over many years if the owner would let me keep anything he didn’t want. Although I carted three truckloads to the dump, I carried two others–packed with old farm equipment, scrap metal, and used lumber–to my place. The materials more than covered my labor … and I repaid a friend who helped me load on that job by working on his truck.

Once you get established in an area, bartering opportunities grow like a snowball!

Barter Boxes

During the past year or so some good folks here in Cambridge have been furthering the art of barter by placing containers labeled “FREE BOX”–sturdy, wooden 3′ X 5′ bins with hinged lids–outdoors near churches and in other prominent spots in the community.

Now I take that dress I never wear, or the shirt somebody gave me that’s two sizes too big, and just drop it off in one of the Free Boxes. When I get in the mood for some new clothes, I don’t waste money … I just rummage around in the Free Box and pick up what I need.

Sometimes people add other items–toys and books–to the collection, but the chests are mainly used for wearables. The system is a fine way for many people to barter, to give, or to receive as they need with no hassles. Clothes swapping beats clothes shopping any day.

Trade Art for Lessons

I recently decided to build a traditional Norwegian wood-burning kiln from some old plans I found (wood is a much cheaper fuel than oil or gas), but I couldn’t afford to buy the firebricks I needed. When I told a farmer friend about my problem he offered me over 200 bricks from an oil burner that had heated his old, unused chicken barn if I’d fire his girlfriend’s pottery along with mine. He also volunteered to give me all the manure I wanted for dung firing (another primitive way of firing pottery).

For some time I’ve been wanting to take riding lessons … but the $5.00 an hour charge was a little out of my reach. Last week my riding teacher saw the quilt I’m making and offered to take a patchwork coverlet in place of money for lessons. Since I’m unemployed and have plenty of time to quilt (but little cash to spare), the deal seemed perfect. She gets a quilt and I get 15 lessons.

When I was in art school we students–who couldn’t afford to purchase art pieces–traded our work. Swapping was a great way to start an art collection … and, who knows, one of my friends might someday become famous.

This winter I had a bad case of “cabin fever” and longed to visit a city where I could go to museums and other public places. So I arranged to paint a mural on a friend’s wall in exchange for six weeks of city living at her place . . . a real treat for an artist who spends most of her time in the country.

Trade Help for Room and Board

Last fall Judy and I and our two dogs took a trip across the States with an eye out for possible homesteading areas.

We decided to hole up for the winter in southern California . . . a perfect place to enjoy the sunshine and some good friends before resuming our search in the spring. In one particular area–which has tremendous potential for avocado and citrus groves–land and rents are sky high. Finding a home was not an easy task.

One day a great gal named Irene picked up a copy of MOTHER and glanced through it, taking special notice of the Positions and Situations column. She’s got a large place on two acres of land that her husband had tucked away for their retirement. Unfortunately, he died three years ago and Irene had neither the time nor money to keep it up. The home didn’t have electricity, but Irene discovered through MOTHER that wall sockets don’t mean all that much to a lot of us.

Well, to make a long story and cut six of the best months of our lives short, we moved in and swapped every imaginable type of clean-up, fix-up work for totally free (Irene took care of us as if we were her family), slow-paced country living.

More importantly, out of a bartering arrangement we three established a love and understanding of each other that you rarely experience with blood relatives.

I’d like to end our story by saying that we bought Irene a subscription to MOTHER for Christmas. Though we’re back East now, I’d give anything to see her face light up as she turns to this letter.

Trade Wood for Services

I may still live in the city, but I’m trying to embrace the principles of natural living as much as I can … and barter tops my list.

As a person alone in an old house that constantly needs fixing, I can always use help. I’m a good cook … and have recently traded meals for yard work, a new fence, repairs on my porch steps, and a paint job on the top story of the house.

Last summer I helped tear down an old garage in exchange for having one-third of the wood delivered to my door. Since I then had plenty of fireplace kindling, I swapped some of the short pieces to a neighbor for a day’s worth of weeding. Getting rid of those scraps cleaned out my garage enough that another friend had room to store his car which I was allowed to use-while he traveled. He’s also promised to help me panel my bathroom with the rest of the old planks I have on hand!

For some time I’ve been saving up to do some traveling myself, but have felt guilty about leaving when there’s so much work to be done. Recently, however, I heard that several close friends of mine need a place to live this summer, so I arranged for them to split the house payment (which is very small), tend the garden, and do some other odds and ends for use of my fully furnished house and all the goodies they want from the garden and pantry. I can now go off and enjoy myself knowing the place will be well taken care of.

Trade Food

Try as I might–by converting lawns and flowerbeds to vegetable and spice gardens, and even using rubber tire potato planters on my driveway–I simply can’t produce sufficient food on my small city lot for a family of four. But even as an urbanite (though definitely not by choice), I’ve been able to supply vegetable crops for my family … through barter.

One area farmer, who enjoys my homemade chemical-free beer, has planted 10 acres in raspberries and eight in market vegetables. We share the cost of seed … and he enjoys my beer, labor, and company in exchange for produce which requires spacious growing areas (such as potatoes, squash, and cabbage).

Another older farmer–along with a son and me–put over 6,000 bales of hay and straw in his barn last year (for his cattle and for sale to other farmers). Besides giving me homemade grape wine, rhubarb, and root stocks of asparagus, he’s letting me use his new camping truck for a three-week holiday this summer.

Sincere, hard farm labor has really paid off for me.

Trade Construction for Hunting Privileges

Since our little mountain cabin is very primitive and off the beaten track, we have many requests every year for hunting privileges … which we mostly turn down for reasons of safety and seclusion.

However, two years ago a few people offered to build a new porch on our cabin for the right to hunt. We accepted. .. and they not only constructed a beautiful addition but did it with wood that was salvaged from an old barn and planed at a relative’s sawmill. In the spring they came to fish for trout in our stream, and in return helped with any repairs or chores they saw. We became friends–to say the least–and this relationship has sure helped us out..

An inexpensive ad in the paper of your nearest big town–offering hunting or fishing rights, mushroom gathering, a garden plot, etc.–could possibly bring all the extra help you need any time of the year. Just stand firm on your ground rules (we asked our hunters to obey all state and county game laws and keep us advised of the area they’d be hunting in each day) and remember that–with firearms–small groups mean greater safety.

Trade Truck Use for Food

Bartering is about the best way our family has found to dampen inflation … and, since we need all the help we can get to “make it” these days, swapping has become a common means of exchange for us.

Because my husband is not a gardener, I usually have to scrounge up everything for my organic plot in our station wagon. How ever, a friend of ours offers the use of his pickup truck in exchange for half a load of horse manure if I locate the source. (We dean the stalls together.) When I rented a rototiller last summer, this same man provided the muscle to plow my garden and then took the cultivator to till his own.

When our next-door neighbor borrows our chain saw for cutting wood for his smokehouse he repays us with a generous supply of mouthwatering smoked fish.

Once a friend and I filled the back of her Blazer with some culled cucumbers and peppers I’d found free for the hauling. Later we split our lucky find and–of course made pickles galore. Our sons even went door to door selling wagonloads of the extra produce for 5¢ a pickle … good money for them and a great deal for the neighbors.

Recently we took our four children on a camping trip. We would have had to rent a camper, but instead paid some friends of ours for a new license plate and used their trailer. The swap helped us both out.

Four children in a family means a lot of housework, so my friend Joan (who also has four youngsters) and I decided to share our duties. Each week we complete a big job at each house–such as washing windows, cleaning out cabinets, scrubbing mildewed porch beams, wiping down walls, etc.–which we wouldn’t try to tackle alone. While our children play together, our work time is cut in half.

Trade Cattle for Horse Training

My husband and I raise Spanish mustang hones, but–sadly enough–we live in a definite quarter horse area and most everyone puts our sturdy, fast, and intelligent little animals down.

Well … we happened to have a colt that we knew was good. He came wild off the range in Wyoming from purebred stock and wasn’t about to let any two-legged creatures near him with ropes, blankets, saddles, and what have you. The colt was so nervous we didn’t really know how to break him, and we didn’t want to blow the job!

Then, one day we happened to run into a professional horse trainer and invited him out to the farm. The man immediately liked Choctaw and said he could have the little mustang in the bridle and trained to voice and leg commands in one week… problem was, he charged $10 a day and we just didn’t have that kind of money on hand.

As it turned out, though, we had an extra beef that Neil (the trainer) wanted … and since cattle prices were down at that time, the swap seemed ideal to us.

But the arrangement worked out even better than we’d expected. Neal was great with horses and showed my husband some of his “family secrets” (many originating from Indian know-how) for training the animals. We now have a well-broken horse, a good friend,and the ability and knowledge to work with this year’s colts ourselves.

With cash you might get what you pay for. With barter you get what you trade for … and then some.

Incidentally, we can now go to any horse show around and keep up with the best of the quarter horses. That makes us very proud!