Barter System Makes a Comeback

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Bartering with your neighbor is not only a way to establish a mutually beneficial partnership, it opens the door to a lifetime of friendship.
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Offer up your labor and skills on a construction project in exchange for homegrown vegetables or other goods and services your new friend might be able to provide.
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If a neighbor has heavy machinery that you would like to utilize, offer to strike up a deal.
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Fresh produce and homemade goods can be considered a form of "country currency."

“So,” our new neighbor said somewhat hesitantly. “How much would it cost us to have you and Julie tend to our horses for a long weekend while we’re out of town? It’s not a ton of work. And we’ll show you exactly what to do.”

New neighbors. My wife, Julie, a native to the area, and I had recently returned to southwest Washington state following an 18-year stint in eastern Iowa. We’d just started to get to know the people around our small acre in the Elochoman Valley. John and Claudia were longtime locals — country folk who, like us, hunt, fish, heat with wood, grow a big garden, and rely on Mother Nature for a large percentage of their day-to-day dealings.

“Nothing,” I told her. “Glad to do it. You just show us what needs done, and we’ll tend to it.” Claudia was quite obviously confused. “Nothing?” she asked. “Nope,” I replied, grinning. “I’m sure we can work something out.”

Such was the beginning of a newfound friendship. Since that first encounter, Julie and I have taken care of Pepper, Blue, Mariah, and Rosey many, many times, with never a dollar changing hands. But don’t think for a moment the relationship hasn’t been mutually beneficial. In exchange for our equine care, John and Claudia have been kind enough to grant me permission to hunt their acreage during deer, elk, and black bear seasons. I now have use of John’s front-end loader, brush hog, and PTO-powered post hole digger. And both of them stop by frequently with fresh vegetables and blueberries from their enormous garden. It’s a win-win for everyone involved, we’ve come to agree, and all because of that centuries-old system of acquiring what one needs, sans the almighty dollar: the barter system.

Typically, it’s the same thing anytime I mention the barter system nowadays. “Antiquated,” says one. “Archaic,” says another. “Doesn’t work except in the country,” says a third. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that the barter system is an ancient method by which two parties obtain something desired without the formal exchange of currency. It’s a safe bet that mankind has been practicing the barter system in one form or another since the appearance of human beings on the planet. Salmon for this. Beads for that. Flint arrowheads and cedar shafts for this and that. It’s nothing new, this back-and-forth among humans. However, if it’s so long in the tooth, how is the barter system still relevant today?

It’s not only in rural areas across the country that this way of conducting commerce persists. If you’ve shoveled someone’s sidewalk or driveway and been handed a tray of still-warm, homemade chocolate chip cookies when you’ve finished, you’ve bartered. If you’ve repaired someone’s mountain bike in exchange for an afternoon twice a month on said bicycle, you’ve practiced the barter system. But these are, admittedly, somewhat unintentional acts of barter. What about bartering with a purpose?

It’s safe to say that intentional bartering occurs more often in rural settings. Do I as a rural resident still enjoy a bit of extra “green” in my pocket? Certainly. However, our lifestyle puts more emphasis — and dependence in some cases — on goods and services rather than money. Though we’re not wealthy, we have enough money each month to meet our financial obligations. What I don’t have is a backhoe, a brush hog, a trencher, a PTO-driven post hole digger, or concrete-finishing skills. But for these services, I can barter by offering material trades, homemade foods, or general labor hours.

This brings us to the foundations of bartering, which are trust and perceived value. For the barter system to work, there must exist an element of trust between the parties, even though they may initially be strangers. In most instances, my bartering is done with friends or acquaintances — people I know and people I trust to not only deal fairly, but to raise a flag should they feel the trade to be uneven or unfair. However, and as the saying goes, friends are but strangers once. One has to start somewhere when developing any relationship with another individual. This is true in life as well as true in the barter system.

It’s important to keep in mind the mantra “it never hurts to ask” when it comes to suggesting the barter system as a means of commerce instead of money. Some will decline; some will accept. Take, for instance, the professional lumberjack I met recently. Mark, who was a stranger initially, was in possession of a huge slash pile containing several alder logs. We heat only with wood, thus I desired the logs. I stopped, introduced myself, and asked his intentions for the alder. “Have at it,” I was told, but not before learning via casual conversation of his remodeling plans for his late parents’ older home. Knowing this, I offered my carpentry skills and time. In turn, he gave me several cords of firewood, along with permission to bring in a backhoe and dump truck to make the job easier. Do I have a backhoe, dump truck, two extra chainsaws, and four extra arms well acquainted with the rigors of cutting firewood? No. This was yet another barter involving the aforementioned skills and equipment for my help putting up hay. In bartering, one trade often leads to another, and another.

Finally, bartering involves an element of perceived equal value. Successful bartering depends on all parties being satisfied both with what they’re receiving and what they’re giving in trade. How does one know what’s fair to offer? Unlike a commercial financial transaction where there’s a set price (e.g., $2.98 for a gallon of milk), bartering presents both parties the opportunity to negotiate until such a time as the trade is amiably declined or an agreement is made. In some cases, an approximate dollar amount could be assigned to items or services on either side of the bartering fence, and that would be a place to begin. Once they balance, or roughly so, equilibrium has been achieved. Mostly, the elements of barter and fairness might best be described as a “by feel” transaction. Rather, both parties know if the trade feels right or not. And it’s not wrong to simply ask, “Are you OK with that?”

A barter is a friendly transaction. It’s a serious agreement that both sides of the deal should be upheld, but with an air of informality often not seen when money is involved. Plus, it’s a great way to meet lifelong friends — something you simply can’t put a price on.

Related: Make friends with your new community with these nine tips for being a good country neighbor.

Here are a few guidelines in bartering to help get you going:

  • Know what you have to barter, and what it’s worth to you.
  • Know what you want in exchange, and what you’d be willing to give/do for it.
  • Be willing to negotiate on both sides of the fence — e.g., giving and receiving.
  • Be patient, don’t be pushy, and don’t be offended if you get a “no thanks.” Some folks are unfamiliar with the nuances of a barter.
  • Be honest, truthful, open-minded, and fair.
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