The Beautiful Politics of the Backyard Barter System

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In this moving installment of her Catapult column, Backyard Politics, Christine H. Lee recounts how her prolific chickens and their eggs spawned a chain of generosity that helped her to discover a new appreciation for the good of humanity and to rekindle a tenderness in herself — one she never knew she needed. Lee discovers equilibrium in sharing her farm’s bounty and in the beauty of simple, impromptu barter arrangements.

It all started with chickens.

When our flock of chickens came of age on our farm and began laying in earnest, we were inundated with eggs. Chickens ovulate approximately every twenty-five hours (yes, a chicken egg is that kind of an egg). If there is a rooster, the egg is fertilized. If there is no rooster, the egg remains unfertilized. Either way, that means a chicken at peak fertility lays five to six eggs per week. Also, now you know a chicken egg is essentially its period.

We had six chickens, so that meant almost thirty-six eggs per week. I should say: We do not eat anywhere near thirty-six eggs per week.

As someone who finds it hard—so so so hard—to ask for help, because it makes me feel vulnerable, weak, and in debt, which in turn has historically led to being abused, bartering is a safe exchange. Bartering equalizes exchange. There is no counting the change, because there is no change to give. Bartering involves consent; the exchange of two items must be deemed acceptable by agreement between two traders. You need. I have. You have, I need. You want. I want. We both want.

Here’s the thing: I thought the farm would yield fruit and produce and some time with fresh air.

But nature is never obedient. It spills over.

The bartering and consent and ensuing community became a part of my life. I thought the farm would be a place to sequester myself and lick my wounds—recover from a divorce, recover from postpartum depression, and spend time in new motherhood with a backdrop of fruit and vegetables.

But what it did was bring community to me. A community I didn’t think I wanted or needed. But I did want it. I did need it. The community helped me recover—more than recover; it brought me a whole new model for living.

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