The Barter Economy

My 9-year-old daughter Rowan sparked an interesting discussion recently by asking, “Why do we use money for everything?” Kids are great examiners of things we adults take for granted. As always, her question got me thinking. Before the advent of money, humans got what they needed by trading with each other, exchanging goods or services without any money changing hands. This practice of bartering with one’s neighbors has endured thousands of years of civilization—including the mainstreaming of standardized monetary systems all over the world–and remains a cornerstone of rural economies.

Farms are especially rich with opportunities to barter, since they often produce a lot of one or two things, but need many others. One of my very favorite things about going to farmers’ market is the bartering that happens among vendors. Some ginger syrup for strawberries, honey for mushrooms, lamb for fresh hot omelettes – what could be better? Actually, I recently made the best barter of my life.

Last Summer I wrote about my family milk cow, Chestnut, who had just freshened for the first time. In the Fall I had to travel a lot, leaving my husband to deal with milking on top of the regular chores, managing kids, and his work schedule. We approached our neighbors, who were also milking a cow, about housing Chessie temporarily at their budding dairy farm, just for a month. They were open to the idea.

That month came and went, and while I missed my sweet cow, I realized how much time I had been spending managing her. So we made a new arrangement. Our neighbors were happy to add Chessie permanently to their herd, in exchange for supplying us indefinitely with milk, butter, and cream. All the benefits with none of the work? Yes! And I can still visit my sweet girl whenever I’m missing her.

As I was explaining to Rowan how bartering would be impractical on the scale at which global trade is conducted (imagine if NYSEG customers paid their bills in vegetables and eggs, for example, how difficult it would be for NYSEG to evenly split those goods to pay their employees!) I remembered the barter parties my husband and I used to throw before we had, well, such long to-do lists. We would invite all our friends and neighbors over and ask them to bring clothing, books, tools, shoes, toys, music – anything they wanted to trade. We provided no guidance on negotiating the deals; people would just look at each other’s stuff and make barter offers. The only rule was that no money was allowed to change hands. We encouraged them to think about their skills too, and provided “free trade” certificates for people to document their service-oriented barters with the other party-goers.

None of us can know exactly what the future may hold, but many of us worry about it. It seems to me that building relationships with neighbors through mutually beneficial barters is one way to strengthen our resilience. Anyone up for holding a “free trade” party like we use to throw in the good ol’ days?


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