Bartering - trading goods and/or services for other good and/or services - can be a great way to get what you need and to get rid of what you have in excess. In its simplest form, bartering is trading one good for another - zucchini for butternut squash, for example. But bartering can often involve services like bushhogging, mowing, or photography, or even haircuts, clothing or value-added products like knit goods or spun wool.
Benefits of Bartering
When times are tough and prices for farm goods are low is an especially fine time to consider bartering. During these times, skipping the step of exchanging goods to cash and cash for what you need, can lower your overall outlay and make better use of your resources. Plus, it's just plain neighborly and community-building to trade things instead of formally purchasing them. Many people who wouldn't feel comfortable selling their carrots, say, at a farmers market, do feel fine exchanging them for garlic or onions with a fellow small farmer or homesteader.
Some benefits of bartering include:
- building community
- decreasing outlay of cash, especially if you're just starting out or otherwise cash-poor
- increasing your business recognition if you're in business, building a name for yourself, getting your product out there
- generating potential customers
- networking with other farmers
- finding out what there is demand for
- decreasing your overall expense for needed goods and services
- moving surplus goods
- making use of "downtime" (try bartering for needed things in winter and offering childcare or other services)
Bartering Basics - Get Started
So, how do you go about finding someone to barter with? Well, just ask around! I know, sometimes it's easier said than done. Here are some tips for beginning barterers:
- Put the word out. Let anyone and everyone know you're wanting to barter. Make a list of what you have, and be sure to "sell" it. (Chicken = eh. Home-dressed free-range organic roasting chickens, spice-rubbed and ready for your oven = YES!) Make a list of what you're looking for in goods or services. Let your friends know, and ask them to tell their friends and neighbors. Put up a list on a bulletin board or at the feed store. Go 2.0: put it on craigslist, Facebook, tweet it.
- Go value-added. Don't just shear your sheep and try to trade raw fleece (but hey, if you can - go for it). Take the wool, spin and dye it - now try to trade it. You added labor, but you also vastly increased value. Not only the cash value of the yarn, but the chance that someone will be willing to trade for it has increased.
- Specialize in something. Many home gardeners grow tomatoes, cukes and zukes. You're always going to have a tough time getting rid of these veggies in excess. But heirloom lettuce seed that didn't bolt in mid-July heat? Someone will trade for that, I'm sure. Or that delicious jalapeno variety that takes special babying in zone 4. Think of things you can produce that not everyone can as easily.
Tips for Bartering
Bartering can be a lot of fun, but it can also be stressful and even contentious. Have happy barters with the following tips.
- Be clear. Be sure that when bartering, both parties are clear about what is being exchanged. Put it in writing if possible, or if there's any question in your mind about quantities to be exchanged or services to be rendered.
- Be fair. Consider what the goods are worth on the open market, or if trading for services, what the person's customary fee or hourly rate is. Strive for an equal exchange as far as value.
- Pay taxes. Bartering does not exempt you from paying taxes, so be sure to keep track of the goods and services you barter for, and report this to the IRS.
Don't Limit Yourself
It's all too easy to set up a few swaps with other farmers and trade eggs for potatoes, or garlic for grapes. And, if you've done this, terrific! But don't forget about swapping with less likely partners. An article in Mother Earth News from 1976, excerpted from Let's Try Barter by Charles Morrow Wilson, tells the Depression-era story of Evelyn Harris, "the barter lady of the Chesapeake Shores," who traded homegrown foods, including many "home-dressed roasting chickens," as well as homemade goods like woven wool blankets, and even a weeklong vacation at her farm, for everything from surgery bills to book club subscriptions to basic farm labor.
The Barter Lady's story verges on fairytale, but the idea is a sound one and can provide a springboard for inspiration. Remember that locally-grown, artisanal food and goods are enjoying a resurgence of popularity. In times of economic difficulty, everyone can use foodstuffs and people may have a lack of business or employment and therefore extra time on their hands. People are once again receptive to the idea of accepting fresh farm goods in exchange for their services. You'll never know unless you ask!