Burning Question: Do Barter Systems Really Work?

Bartering services is a natural form of exchange seen in plant and animal communities that humans don’t take advantage of often enough.

by Dani Yokhna

Some people opt to trade services instead of cash to obtain the things they need.

Farming for money can be difficult, and we know there’s much more to it than money. Bartering can be a way to maintain the homesteading lifestyle while getting what you need to live comfortably. Bartering fits hand-in-hand with going back to the land. It means going back to a natural system that humans used for thousands of years before mass production of printed money. If you own cattle, you own the oldest form of money. Around 9,000-6,000 B.C., when humans shifted from hunting and gathering to an agrarian lifestyle, livestock, grains and vegetables became standards of exchange in various cultures.

When I worked as a park guide at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, I would teach visitors about the rock outcrops of flint, or agatized dolomite, a beautiful blue-red-tan variegated rock that could cut sharper than a razor. Fist-sized chunks of flint called blanks were traded along migration routes stretching across the continent. These blanks could be flint-knapped, shaped into any type of tool needed for acquiring food, shelter and clothing. Whatever the end use of the flint, it would have to be put into hands of people who knew how to use it. Those hands were most likely trained by elders who learned through living close to the land to use what it would provide with respect for multiple generations to come.

This brings me to my point: Bartering is more than exchanging this for that; it builds community spirit, fosters connections and supports an interactive society. Bartering emphasizes identifying needs and filling them, rather than working for unidentifiable motives, only to be rewarded with paper tokens.

Bartering is old school. Exchanging resources or services for mutual advantage means cutting out the middleman and judging value for yourself. Is bartering a thing of ancient history or is it a system that can still work today? Is bartering only for idealists, the poor, or for those living off the grid in vegan communes? Can bartering become mainstream?

One CSA model trades fruits and vegetables for farm labor provided by its members.
Andrea Dunlap/Flickr

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Here are some ways to consider bartering and whether it fits into your life.

The Informal, Neighborly Thing To Do

Remember old-fashioned barn raisings? All the friends, family and neighbors would gather to raise the roof on a new homestead. Although it seems rare these days, people do still need each other. Trading skills can be a great way to spend time with friends. Some of my friends in town have wood-burning stoves, and they take time helping split and stack wood at each others’ houses. Some of them call it a work trade and others just enjoy it, have time to do it and don’t ask for anything in return.

The One-Off Exchange

These are low-commitment agreements made directly with the other party. For example, I bartered with an animal acupuncturist: an hour of acupuncture for my cats in exchange for photography services for the doctor to use in her marketing.

Volunteering in a community garden one Saturday morning could mean you walk away with training in a new skill and a few veggies, seeds or transplants. A local Facebook page in my area, Kentucky Artisan Barter, connects artisans who can barter their goods and services with each other. Folks are trading things like rustic furniture for hand-made soaps.

The Organized System

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) work shares can be arranged to relieve the farmer of some labor by requiring the CSA member to work a certain number of hours each week or each season for a certain amount of food. Teaching homesteading or gardening courses that participants register for is another way to trade education for service. Permaculture training centers and independent growers offer experiences, such as building with natural materials, designing your landscape for sustainable agriculture and foraging for wild foods. Often they will charge a fee for participation, but they’re also generally very open to full or partial work trades.

There are organizations, such as Time Banks, that manage barter systems and encourage a cultural shift around meeting needs in your community. Rather than trading directly with one other person, your volunteer labor time is banked and you can cash it in by calling on the other members’ services. One of their core values is recognizing that much work goes undervalued or underpaid, so all time is seen as equal in Time Banks. Every hour of work is valued equally.

The Lifestyle

If you are ready to minimize your bills, leave home, and trade your time for food and/or lodging, you could find a farm to live and work on. Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is the first one that many young farmers try, which links volunteers with organic farms. Whether it lasts a week or a year, the standard agreement is full-time work in exchange for room and board.

More serious agriculture students may use ATTRA to locate a host farm, many of which are also listed in WWOOF. The National Center for Appropriate Technology maintains this database of internships, which list expectations and contact information for farms that will host interns. The understanding with these exchanges is that education is the main commodity.

There are more options for trading work and living with others, like Help Exchange. Help Exchange opens the doors of serious farms and much more, such as bed and breakfasts, sailboats, and hobby farms that need helpful tenants for a short time.

One caveat: when you start comparing your barter arrangement to hourly wages or weighing the value of one professional’s time against another’s, it can be a bit tricky. For example, would doing someone’s laundry for one hour really equate to one hour of a professional psychotherapy session? In these cases with a large disparity, discuss what is perceived as fair to both parties, and come to an agreement. It can’t be emphasized enough that both parties need to clearly understand what is expected and have the agreement clearly communicated. Understand worst-case scenarios that could leave you homeless and without any savings to re-enter the cash economy. Don’t let these fears hold you back from trading what you can, just be aware that you may need a back-up plan if you go all-out for the lifestyle change.

Bartering is not just for humans. Plants and animals live in mutualistic relationships every day, trading shelter for food, pollination for nectar, nurseries for protection. It’s unnatural that we humans have to be compensated according some arbitrary scale of worthiness. What would our society be like if we could just give and receive more freely? No matter what service you can provide, you have something to offer. That simple recognition can be life-changing for some people, and there’s no way to put a pricetag on a sense of purpose.


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