Photo courtesy of Backyard Barter
A few items available for barter at a Backyard Barter event

Backyard Feast: How one woman built a food community through barter

By Joshua McNichols, author of Urban Farm Handbook

When Creagh Miller moved to Seattle, she wanted to get involved with urban farming. But she lacked certain skills. How exactly does one build a chicken coop? How do you install an irrigation system? Most people would check out books from the library, or take classes through Seattle Tilth. But for Creagh, it was about more than just getting information. She wanted to be part of a community.

So Creagh created Backyard Barter. The organization hosts barter events around town. People trade jam, pickles, jewelry, knitted octopi, homebrew, salsa, goat milk soaps, homemade laundry detergent – just about anything you can make at home.

A few of her ideas didn’t take off. She’d hoped people would trade high end services too. That didn’t happen. It’s one thing to eat somebody’s jam. Relying on someone for legal advice requires more trust. Also, the website she created, where people could arrange trades in advance, failed to thrive. But when it came to good old-fashioned, face-to-face bartering of homemade preserves and crafts– that’s where things really started to happen.

Here’s why. If you’ve ever grown anything in your backyard, you’ve probably experienced this problem: Too much of a good thing. In my yard this year, my plums seemed to ripen all at once. And as much as I enjoy plums, there’s no way my family can eat 20 gallons of them. We made a whole lot of plum jam, gave some away, and fed a couple gallons of rotten fruit to the chickens. Now, I have much more plum jam that we could possibly eat. Yet despite this abundance, we lack many things. I lack the time, space and attention to keep bees on our property. I lack the knowledge and experience to brew our own beer. Bartering allows me to enjoy a wider variety of backyard plunder. It’s like having a diverse farm, but without all the hassle.

Creagh assembled a team of volunteers around her, and over time they’ve learned how to draw bigger crowds. And while small barters have their own charm, it’s the really big events that fetch the most interesting trades. The secret to drawing a crowd, Creagh found, was to give people a chance to check out the barter without committing. So her team began combining barters with other events, like the Seattle Tilth Harvest Fair. After the visitors discover that barterers are normal people - not all survivalists – they tend to jump in. So for Backyard Barter’s upcoming big fall event (see below), Creagh is bringing in classes, jam judging, live music and pie walks.

Creagh believes this kind of small-scale trading opens the doors to bigger trades. Eating someone else’s spicy ketchup is the first step in building trust between neighbors.

Now, Creagh is approaching the due date in her first pregnancy. And like all new parents, she’s probably going to need some help now and then. But when she opens her pantry, she sees dozens of jars of preserves, many of them labeled with the names of new friends she’s met through Backyard Barter. She may not know any of them well enough to leave them alone with a newborn infant. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

Backyard Barter’s Urban Food Fair is Sunday, November 4th from 10AM to 4PM at Seattle University’s Campion Ballroom. Find out more about the group on its facebook page:

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