Without a doubt, one of my favorite perks of farming is the ease with which we can barter. Everyone eats, so the odds that we have something someone else wants are generally pretty good. I know of one farm in Massachusetts that barters vegetable shares for chiropractic care, apprentice housing, and even legal advice. As we are often short on cash and long on food, bartering matches our lifestyle quite well.
Really though, the best part about bartering is the feeling that a successfully completed barter inspires: of having won a prize or struck it rich. Cash, while unquestionably useful, is anonymous, unspecific. Every twenty looks like every other, and any denomination of bill, once seen several times, loses its mystery and becomes just a way of storing value for future use. Every barter on the other hand, is unique, a transaction based on mutual, particular need or desire. I have no doubt that the cashier at the grocery will accept my money in exchange for food; a barter is never certain until it is completed. That uncertainty makes bartering exciting.
Last weekend, I achieved bartering nirvana. Our friends at Mountain View Farm hosted the second annual “Food Barter Fair” for a motley crew of homesteaders, farmers, apprentices, and enthusiastic home cooks. The offerings ran the gamut from homebrew to hot sauce, stock to sourdough bread. Once we had all set out our wares for inspection, the room looked like a Ball Jar convention, or perhaps an advertising campaign aimed at anti-consumerists do-it-yourselfers.
I had been eagerly awaiting this day for months, but had lately begun to fret that our offerings would be too mundane to tempt my fellow barterers. We brought food which we had in surplus: Andrew’s fantastic frozen chicken stock, as well as eggs and frozen chickens, but I worried that such ordinary fair might not score me the exotic pickles or dairy products that I hoped to barter for. So I raided my own small preserved food stashes and our freezer and threw in some dried apple rings, a jar of pear butter, an enormous loaf of Andrew’s challah bread, and some asparagus pickles, just to broaden our offerings.
Once there, I was quickly overwhelmed by the array of delights before my eyes. Left to my own devices, I was likely to barter it all away at the first table with funky jams. Andrew, never one to take shopping lightly, proposed a strategy. First we scouted the tables of our fellow barters and prioritized our wants. We wouldn’t want to barter away the challah bread at the first table only to find that it was the only thing neighbor number two wanted, right? Fermentation topped our list: kimchi, homebrew, and pickles made by our good friend Casey. Casey, as it turned out, was happy to apply our selections toward the cost of his Thanksgiving turkey, and with that dispensation we went a bit wild.
As is usually the case, my worries of barter fair pariah-hood were unfounded. Everyone had something that someone else wanted, and we all went home thinking we had made out like bandits. As for our own pantry, I am now the proud hoarder of (among other things): quince chutney, green tomato pickles, assorted jams, raw yogurt and cottage cheese, pear sauce, pear wine, pumpkin stout, chimichuri, and sourdough bread. Commerce never tasted so good.