When I wrote about homesteading magazines in February, several people praised Countryside as the best of the bunch. Intrigued, I subscribed. I’ve received my first issue and I have to say: I’m impressed.

Countryside isn’t for everyone. It’s very much geared toward those interested in getting “back to the land”. When I read the magazine, I couldn’t help but think of my father. He loved this sort of thing. But even though I live in suburbia, there was still plenty of interest for me, as well.

Every month, Countryside features an enormous section of reader feedback, for example. People write in to tell their stories and to share tips and tricks about living in the country. It’s like a great blog conversation in print. This month, a letter from Khaiti Kahleck of Wisconsin introduced me to the concept of SwapLucks:

I want to share an idea with readers, as we are all facing pretty freaky economic times. I know folks who knit, but don’t can food, or make soap or go fishing or have a huge garden, etc. Many of us have skills or abilities to share, so we get together about once a month and have a “Swap-Luck”, where we all bring something we’ve made, grown, grown out of, or a skill to trade with each other. These are so fun!

Our group is slowly growing to include others now too. The last one had a dozen folks with pizza dough, goat milk, habanero peppers, fresh granola, kimchi, wine, soup — there’s something for everyone! I’d highly encourage others to try this; it really encourages you to try new things, make creative foods or products, and doesn’t involve money. And it builds community as well.

I think it’s clever to extend the potluck concept beyond food, but I was unsure how it would work in practice. I wished Khaiti’s letter to Countryside contained more information, so I tracked her down and sent her e-mail. “I’m curious about the mechanics of a SwapLuck,” I wrote. “How do they work?” Khaiti replied to describe the concept in greater detail:

Our SwapLuck group has over twenty folks who come and go, but started with a handful of friends. Friends tell friends, and so it goes. We get together about every two weeks. Last summer I read this fantastic book called The Revolution Will not be Microwaved, by Sandor Katz. He described these underground groups who get together and trade things that may be your specialty, but the financial overhead and burden to do what you love for a living (and up to code) is nearly impossible. But you love to do it anyhow.

So we got a group of interested folks together and started. In our group we have:

  • bread bakers
  • kimchi fermenters
  • potters
  • a seamstress
  • gardeners
  • backyard egg-producers
  • home brewers
  • goat milkers
  • peanut sauce makers
  • different dessert and cookie makers
  • a masseuse
  • cool junk collectors

There’s all kinds of stuff! We all bring as much as we want to trade — no limit or restrictions. And if people like what you make or have brought, they swap with you (as long as you have something they want.) We all have our specialties, and the group is ever-evolving. People try new things all the time. That was part of the incentive, so we’d all be inspired to try making new things, knowing we had a ready audience. 

Over the winter, we met at a local bakery/coffee shop. Now that summer is coming, we’ll return to meeting at people’s homes. It is amazing at how business-like we are about it. Sometimes it’s like a party afterwards, but the swapping comes first. At each swap we always decide as a group when and where the next is. That way the communication doesn’t have to be on one person’s shoulders. We are mostly all on Facebook, so if someone misses one, it is easy to find out where the next one is.

Our typical swap would be at 5:30pm. We wait til 6pm, then one-by-one we go around and describe what we have brought.  Then after everyone has their time, swapping begins. It is first-come first-serve, but second swaps are not unheard of! By 7pm we are usually done swapping. The one rule is “pre”-swapping is not allowed — like you see something good, you can’t interrupt and say “I want that and I have this to swap!” That is our only basic etiquette rule. Swaps on “futures” happen all the time. Maybe you only have one batch of cookies, say, but you could promise a fresh batch to trade. This is all based on trust, and we have found it has built an incredible community as well.

I’d say the hardest thing to swap is services — and I am not sure how many of them have been swapped. The people offering services put it out there, but I am not sure if much has happened outside of the swap.

Have you ever done anything like this? If so, how did it work? More to the point, would you ever do anything like this? As I said, I love the idea. I’d love to participate in something similar here in Portland. I could swap writing services or blog consulting! (Those are sure to be in high demand, right?)

On a semi-related note, check out this article from Yahoo! Green about how swapping is shopping for the new economy. That’s overstating things, of course, but I’ve heard of a lot more people swapping lately.

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