Can’t Buy Me Local: Worktrading for a food revolution

Back in 2006, Michael Pollan wrote a little book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a movement was born. Everyone wanted to eat local and organic food, and those who could afford it, did. In the past few years, farmers’ markets have taken off, kids started to dream about being farmers when they grew up, and a certain segment of the populace bought “Eat Local” tote bags and started shelling out $5 for a bunch of carrots.

On the backs of that movement rode the do-it-yourself locavores, the victory gardeners, the Michelle Obama crowd of herb pots and backyard chickens. Meanwhile, the trust fund kids started taking unpaid positions on farms on their summer breaks, reveling in fresh air, barn dances, and home made sauerkraut. Then most of them graduated, realized that there’s still no money in farming despite our nationwide romanticism for the lifestyle, and found jobs as fry cooks.

I’ll admit to being privileged enough to have spent time in both groups. Then I graduated, and after working a few seasonal jobs, was thankful to find regular work as an institutional cook. I’m very glad I have a job, but being part-time excludes me from the $5 carrot group these days. I’ve always rented and move too often to have a very productive garden. Luckily, I landed on a viable scheme to eat well without paying for it, and get my farming kicks in, too. Since, in the past three years, both the tote-baggers and college grads are finding the locavore dream more and more difficult to carry out, it may be a scheme to consider.

This Thursday found me, like most Thursdays do, squeezing the goats out at NettleEdge Farm. Since last spring, I’ve been coming to this sprawling homestead about once a week to do a few hours of work in exchange for goat milk, eggs, veggies, seeds and whatever else comes out of the earth or animals.

The farm is kept by Rachel and Keith Debuse, their son Keagan, and resident garlic expert George with help from a few others. Located just north of town in that nether region between suburb and country – an estate home on one lot, a Christmas tree farm on the next – the place is chaotic but comfortable. Decades of accumulated farm equipment, inherited from Keith’s family, rusts in nests of blackberry vines. Compost heaps dot the farmyard, protected from the destructive claws of chickens with makeshift fences held together with baling twine. Goats destroy everything, so their sheds are practically coming apart at the seams despite constant repair.

In other words, it’s a paradise, greener and quieter than the busy street I live on. Dogs and poultry run free. Nobody cares where you throw your apple core or park your wheelbarrow. And there’s nothing more beautiful than the family’s army-feeding garden and trees laden with pears, figs, plums and nuts from summer through fall.

My Thursday morning routine at NettlEdge is simple and rejuvenating – clean up after the goats, feed ‘em, milk ‘em, scratch ‘em behind the ears, find more food for them to eat. In the summer, it’s sweet-smelling grass that we cut by hand from the field, or blackberry vines, a goat delicacy. In the winter, it’s chopped up squash, garlic tops, cabbage greens, and hay, all grown on site. (In addition to goat food, the farm produces an excellent garlic crop, which they sell at the Kiva market in Eugene.)

What’s in it for me? I can never decide if the sanity or the sustenance is more valuable. I frequently bike the six miles to the farm along the Willamette River, my head full of worries and confusion on the way there, singing a song and plotting an elaborate lunch for myself on the way back. Although the goat-caretaking routine is easy on the surface, every day I learn something new about their diet and personalities under the watchful eye of Rachel, the unequivocal Goat Mistress.

Of course, there are more tangible forms of payment involved, and it’s a good thing, too. Even though I’m always glad when I get there, it would be hard a lot of days for me to drag myself out of bed and out into the rain without that literal carrot dangling in front of my nose. Instead of a taxed-to-death pay check, I participate in a form of bartering known as a worktrade – trading work for farm product.

At first, Rachel and I were fairly exacting when we measured out my time for her goods. Raw, fresh, organic goat milk goes for about $15/gallon in these parts. It was mine for an hour and half’s work. Another half hour, a carton of eggs. Etcetera. After we got to know each other, however, the employer/employee dynamic slowly shifted toward that between trusted friends, and the things we offer each other have become more elemental than work and food.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to come up with this scheme. Bartering (the exchange of a good or service for another good or service) predates currency; it probably even predates language and culture. A few hundred years ago, taxes were paid in sheaves of wheat; a hundred years ago, doctors and accountants would accept a few chickens or a share of a pig in exchange for their services. Those people were probably smarter than us. Every time a tangible good or service is converted to cash, some of its intrinsic value is lost, pocketed by the trader. Cash traded for goods also drops a bit of that value. Sure, cash is more convenient. But convenience is a luxury that fewer people can afford these days.

Food, especially good food, is expensive. It’s expensive because a whole lot of time and energy go into producing it. Right now in this country, unemployment hovers around 9% of the population (nationally, it’s 8%).  In other words, 9% of the population, and probably more, has an excess of energy and time. Granted, a good chunk of those people, for one reason or another, don’t have the capacity to convert that time and energy into work, but if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you do. I’m also guessing that most of the farmers in your area are starving for time and energy. You can put it together from here.

There are plenty of reasons to worktrade, and the more I do it, the more I find. First off, thanks to the connective power of the internet, good arrangements are easier to locate. I found Rachael and her goats by posting an ad on craigslist one day, lonesome for the goats I left behind at my first farming job. I posted my request to worktrade for milk in the “barter” section, and a friend of Rachel’s spotted it and emailed me. After interviewing each other, we went to work, and we haven’t looked back.

After spending some time trading this way, I began to see the act of the barter unfolding constantly around me – needs and wants implicitly stated and filled. The goats, in exchange for food, shelter and backscratches, give us milk, meat and manure, which is traded in on the field for vegetables, which in turn shared amongst the human and non-human herds on the premises. Plants need the opportunity to propagate themselves; we want their seeds, fruits, leaves and roots. When I first began worktrading, replacing cash with other items of value felt strange to me. Now it’s the social construction of money that seems unnatural.

Bartering is the only economic exchange that enables both parties involved to feel like they’re getting a good deal. It’s not always practical, but when it is, it’s possible to trade one good for another and for both of you to walk away better for the exchange. When cash is involved, intrinsic value is lost. The value of money itself is completely reliant on your ability to get a good deal on something else. Standard retail markup is 60%.

So for the individual with a wealth of time and talent but few “job” opportunities, what options exist to begin converting that energy into sustenance?

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a loose organization of farmers and farm workers around the world. WWOOFers receive housing and/or food at farms in exchange for a few hours’ work per day. Farms are listed online, but you must first pay a membership fee to see what sites are available in your area. It’s usually used by people traveling through, not locals in search of an ongoing worktrade relationship.

I worked under a similar program in British Columbia the summer after graduating college. At Collins Farm, I worked for food, housing, and education – a crash-course in organic farming and making a small family farm survive. Here in Eugene, I’ve worktraded for workshops, rent, and art, doing everything from painting walls to writing. A local organization called Emerald Valley Time Exchange helps people connect to others for trading services (you mow my lawn, I’ll walk your dog). I’ve never used it, but it sounds like a good resource.

It’s not just here in progressivesville that worktrading is accepted practice. The site BarterQuest allows you to trade your skills for items, or items for items, or skills for skills. I couldn’t find any farmers on there, and most people seem to do things remotely (across the US), but it could be a good model for a more local resource. I just joined BarterQuest, and will post if anything exciting happens.

Recently, I brought my friend Cynthia with me on a Thursday morning. A “recovering” vegan, she tried her first sip of real milk and swooned. We spent the trip back to town brainstorming ways to help her find a similar worktrade arrangement. Like me, she works part time, and she isn’t already part of the farming community. She doesn’t have farming experience, but is willing to learn.

What resources exist for people like Cynthia? Unfortunately, there’s no one stop shop, and maybe there should be. An online resource that connects farmers to people willing to commit themselves to a steady worktrade, for free, could do a lot to empower disadvantaged people in our community and relieve the food insecurity that faces a third of the population here (according to Food for Lane County). Farmers would benefit from having one or two committed laborers who are invested in the land for reasons beyond dollar bills or this year’s trend in summer jobs.

A wider adoption of farming worktrades could be an effective way to buck agrobusiness and make real food part of our lives again. Working for food does have its limitations, for individuals and for businesses, but long before the word “locavore” was invented, everyone was one. In times of economic instability, barter was trusted over the going currency. What do we have to lose?

Had a great experience WWOOFing or worktrading for food or anything else? Want to launch a foodtrade site? Let me know via the comments section or email. Thanks!

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