Country Matters: A little bit of give and take

A sharp frost overnight, followed by a brilliantly clear day, finally goaded me into action. I should have started digging the vegetable plot weeks ago, but various reasons - holidays, other jobs, idleness - had prevented me. Now there was no excuse, and as I toiled away in the afternoon sun, I eased the hard labour by calculating how much money I save through growing our own produce. The total for the year, I reckoned, must be well over pounds 300 - and, of course, I had the extra satisfaction of knowing that everything that had come from this plot was completely organic.

Like walking, digging frees the mind; and my thoughts soon progressed from horticulture to the system of barter that prevails in properly rural areas. I do not mean the kind of haggling that takes place in oriental bazaars; I have never been any good at that - and indeed I nurse painful memories of the time I tried to beat down a Tibetan carpet merchant in Kathmandu. With negotiations only just beginning, an eclipse of the sun set in and premature night began to fall. Ah, I thought, this will unsettle the blighter - but no. He remained rock-steady, and in the sinister twilight exacted the full price for the rug that now lies on my study floor.

The barter that I have in mind here is the simple swap of one commodity or service for another. No rules govern such exchanges, except the unspoken one that nobody should specify precise values or show indecorous haste in seeking reciprocation of a favour.

Our one neighbour does not eat lettuces - a pity, because he could have had dozens this summer. But he does enjoy the occasional bowl of free- range eggs, and at this time of year he strikes back with surplus tomatoes. In return for running some of our sheep in his paddock, we give him part or all of a lamb.

Such exchanges are relatively cut and dried. A looser arrangement was one that we made last winter, when we offered quarter to Harry, a young horse, in return for riding instruction given to my wife by his owner. With the best will in the world, I have to say that Harry overstayed his welcome: not only did he decapitate four young oak trees, planted in a ceremonial line along a hedge; he also killed several semi-mature poplars by scoffing their bark, and developed a sinister penchant for chasing sheep until they dropped.

Two donkeys which come to us for prolonged holidays make no direct contribution to our economy. Yet they never outstay their welcome, because they pay for their keep many times over by means of their ridiculous antics.

In midsummer we provided temporary grazing for some of a nearby farmer's beef cattle. He needed more grass. We wanted our grass eaten off, because a low mow does the sward good. So, one morning, he drove 30 large cows down the track through the wood and turned them loose in our meadow. Twenty- two days later, when he took them away again, they had done an excellent job, devouring not only the grass but a good many thistles and nettles as well. In theory, at the going rate of pounds 1 per cow per week, he owed us about pounds 90; but no word had been said about any money.

Nor was anything said about hay until, several weeks later, the weather at last relented and the same farmer was able to cut, dry and bale a field on top of the hill. Down came word, one evening, that the hay was ready, and that since rain was forecast for the morning, we had better move sharp if we wanted any. Away we went, and as night was falling we crammed our trailer with 40 good bales. Later a similar message reached us about straw: 30 bales of that, added to our hay-haul, put the score about level.

More recently we received a low-key inquiry about some stone slabs thought to be stored in one of our barns. Twelve years ago a builder had taken them out of an old stable we were converting and urged us not to throw them away. "Stood there in a corner," he pointed out, "they don't eat nor drink nothing, do 'um?"

The other day that man's brother-in-law - another builder, who has been renovating a cottage nearby - remembered those good old slabs. Did we still have them, by any chance? And if we did, could we spare half a dozen, to make two fire-surrounds? "Of course," I said. "They're no use to us."

Down came the heavy mob with a pick-up truck, and within 10 minutes they had swagged away eight of the best, each weighing about 150lb. The slabs will make fine fire-surrounds, and must have been worth quite a bit. But no one was so boorish as to mention cash, and only time will show what comes back in return. In fact, I may easily have had the worth of the slabs already, in logs, for which the owner of the renovated cottage lets me forage in his wood.

So it goes on. The point of the barter system is not so much to save money as to oil the wheels of everyday existence.

The exchange of small favours creates no end of goodwill - and it often turns out to be extremely useful to be on easy terms with people whose facilities are more extensive than your own.

I know a man, for instance, who, without charge, will be glad to take away the superannuated hay-turner that is rusting down by our bottom hedge, because he cannot resist such museum pieces; and the next time one of our ewes keels over, it will be a very great help to us that we have a friend who is prepared to bury the corpse in his muck heap, where, at no expense to anyone, it will quietly rot away and return its elements to nature.

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