By Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan
Photo by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.
My garden is overflowing with heirloom tomatoes! I can’t keep up with the egg drops from my Leghorns! I don’t have enough room in my fridge for all this kefir starter! First world problems, yes, but problems faced by many a home-grower or -maker nonetheless.
If only there were an elegant solution, one that didn’t involve choking down yet another eight-egg omelet or aggressively foisting that 20-pound bag of jalapenos on your coworkers … One that got you a little something in return, even …
My friends, there is—at least here in Seattle. And last Sunday, it had me vigorously considering the trade-in value of a bag of homemade beef jerky while a banjo player plucked away in the background.
I was at my first backyard bartering session, an idea so brilliant in its simplicity that I’m pissed I didn’t think of it. A group of local gardeners here organized Backyard Barter last year, an online clearinghouse for swapping homemade and homegrown goods. Even better, they hold an in-person bartering meet each month. Bring us your kale, your jam, your homebrewed beer, they say, and trade for equally tantalizing offerings from your fellow producers. “The only rule is no cash,” program coordinator Kellie Stickney told me before last week’s meet.
Obviously, I had to get a piece of this. Only problem: I’m not what you’d call rich in excess produce. I don’t have a real garden, and my windowsill plants would yield just a pinch or two of fresh herbs at a time. I’d gobbled all of last year’s jam long ago, and hand-harvested razor clams don’t exactly keep.
Backyard Barter. (Photo by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.)
But I’m not without my talents. After a little scrounging, I headed off to the Backyard Barter loaded with enough goodies to at least earn me a spot at the trading table — and oh, what a table it was.
We had apple cider and beef broth, kombucha and kettle corn. Preserved lemons, salsa, sourdough starter, Greek yogurt, and cream puffs. I eyed the bottles of homebrew hungrily and sniffed bars of DIY soap. A neighbor on one side offered mini fruit pies from a cooler, while the other set up samples of his dried zucchini chips and steam-extracted grape juice. Somebody had even brought a live chicken, clucking provocatively in her portable chicken wagon. After we’d all had a chance to get good and worked up, Kellie Stickney declared the barter officially on. Time to see what magic I could spin.
Trade No. 1: One bag of homemade beef jerky = One jar of amaretto-soaked pears
I made a beeline for the woman displaying various fruit-plus-liquor concoctions. “You can just eat it right from the jar,” she told me when I picked up the pears. “But it’s also great on ice cream.” Sold! I had to give up my most prized item for it: a bag of my boyfriend’s signature spicy beef jerky. Worth it.
Trade No. 2: Six empty bottles of Deschutes Black Butte Porter = One bottle of mead
This was my ace in the hole, as Kellie had tipped me off that a regular attendee would swap his homemade booze for empties six times over. I sidled up to homebrewer Sean Murphy at his buzzing table and offered the bottles. Turns out I was only half right—the going rate for mead (made from farmers market honey, natch) was actually 12 bottles. Still, Murphy made the trade “just this once.” Ka-ching!
Trade No. 3: One loaf garlic rosemary beer bread = Two bars of soap
Next, I chatted up a friendly woman with a basketful of lip balm, soap, and kefir starter. How about a few bars in exchange for my lovingly baked beer bread (rosemary grown by yours truly)? “Sure, we can do one,” she said. Just one? For my deliciously dense loaf? “Okay, two,” she said. Clearly, this flinty-eyed woman was not to be trifled with.
Trade No. 4: One bottle of worm tea fertilizer = Oregano and parsley seedlings
This one doesn’t really count, as the plant table run by a local nonprofit was simply giving away their sprouts. Generous, yes, but so unsporting! I insisted on trading a bottle of worm tea, which, for the uninitiated, is made of the nutrient-rich drippings from my worm bin. “Worm tea” doesn’t really do the stuff justice, which is why I like to call it Thunder Sauce.
Trade No. 5: FAIL
Emboldened by my trades thus far, I approached a young dad offering eggs from his backyard chickens. I was down to a lone bottle of worm—ahem, Thunder Sauce—but I made a strong case for its worth. Even though “we have a ton of eggs” and “I’m trying to get rid of them,” he was unconvinced. “I’ll think about it,” he said, which is of course the universal code for “Get lost.”
Trade No. 6: One bottle of worm tea = 12 oz. of dried pears
Greenie Pig's final winnings. (Photo by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.)
Luckily, my last trade was a big one. I’d been eyeing the wares of my trading neighbor, Hal Meng, all afternoon: We’re talking rhubarb, salsa, beet powder, dried plums, and grape juice made from his own grapes. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in this fertilizer?” I asked him. “Yeah, sure—what would you like?” he replied affably. Scarcely believing my luck, I picked up a big, vacuum-packed bag of pears. He nodded. Yes! I am the barter queen!
I came away from the session satisfied with my winnings and raring to go for next time. Now that I’ve seen what gets snapped up (kimchi, homebrew, jerky, and yogurt were big-ticket items) and what makes for a harder sell (uh, livestock), I can better position myself for maximum yield. And with my newfound knowledge of strategy, I’m ready to crush. I’m already practicing my best “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” shrug to use after particularly shrewd deals.
If you don’t have a bartering session in your hometown, start one immediately. And remember these helpful insider tips: Offer something that’s cheap and easy for you to make, but valuable to others (extra points if what you’re packing is one-of-a-kind). Don’t be afraid to exploit the three-way trade. And never—never—forget the value of a good loaf of garlic rosemary beer bread.
Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan is Grist’s “Greenie Pig” — weathering all manner of inconvenience and insult in the name of forging a more eco-friendly life. She is a freelance writer and former editor at Backpacker magazine. Her writing has also appeared in 5280 (Denver’s city magazine), Women’s Adventure, and Spry.