03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'll Trade You! Bartering is an Old Island Tradition Perfect for the New Economy

Thanks to my stupidity and the New York Times website, I contracted a computer bug last weekend. Keeping in mind that it never pays to panic -- even if you are on deadline... and you make your living by meeting deadlines... and you are being assaulted by phantom Trojans every time you try to access a website -- I walked calmly to my car, hugging my laptop tightly to my chest, got in and drove to the only two computer stores we have on Martha's Vineyard. The good news is that this only took ten minutes (nothing is too far away on an island). The bad news is, both stores were closed.

Still trying not to panic, I thought about my farmer friend Heidi. Like most farmers I know, Heidi has a second job (or, rather, a first job), too. She's an IT consultant. I felt awkward about calling her late on a Saturday, but I mustered up my nerve. I didn't really expect to hear right back from her, as she generally spends her weekends immersed in a tangle of weeds and herbs and edible flowers. And I wasn't even sure if computer bugs were something she messed with.

So when she enthusiastically invited me to stop by her place at 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning, I was overjoyed. Several hours later, I wasn't just joyful -- I was extremely grateful. Not only had Heidi banished my computer bug, but she had cleaned up my dangerously overcrowded hard drive.

I asked Heidi what I owed her for all her work. "Oh, well, I'm happy to barter. Food is good, dinner even better!" she said, munching on one of the freshly baked Snickerdoodles I'd brought with me as a simple Sunday-morning courtesy. Pretty soon, I'd agreed to have her and her husband over for a local feast some night -- and to spend a little time helping her weed. Cooking and weeding are two skills I happen to have (though I am a decidedly better cook than weeder), so I was only too happy to trade, as cash is a rather spare commodity these days. I counted myself really lucky for Heidi's generosity of time and spirit.

Strangely, the offer to barter came up again only a few days later. From my yoga teacher. She's been asked to prepare a book proposal that will, in part, address the relationship of nourishing food and yoga, and she's at a loss about how to approach the recipes. She knew I had just written my first cookbook and wanted to know if I would help her with the proposal in exchange for some private yoga lessons. Would I?! Of course. I'd help this incredibly spiritual woman even without an exchange, but since I kind of need help with the whole breathing thing (it might have something to do with that constant deadline pressure), I agreed.

I shouldn't really be surprised at these offers; bartering is a long-standing tradition on this Island, especially in winter, when cash flow diminishes. A lot of Vineyarders have extra-large freezers, as it's not unusual to bank some striped bass or venison in exchange for help, repairs, or rides. No doubt freezers will be extra-full this winter, as cash is extra-scarce.

It's one thing to see how well an old-fashioned idea still works in a small community (the 90-square-mile Vineyard has only 16,000 year-round residents). But it's even more exciting to see a concept like bartering take more than a tender toehold in the new economy: bartering posts on Craigslist doubled last year. So if you need a haircut -- or a chimney cleaning, or an oil change -- maybe it's time to brush up on your long dormant carpentry or cooking or piano-playing skills. You never know when an offer might come your way.