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Sultans of swap

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It started on a small Black Forest farm. With dozens of hens laying eggs, supply often outpaces demand, so the family working the farm invited a few friends over to swap the surplus eggs for whatever homemade goods people wanted to trade. The day of the meet-up this past March, edibles — wildflower honey caramels, canned peaches, freshly baked bread — sat showcased on a table, and the bartering began. No cash exchanged hands.

Freelance photographer Kat Ethington, 33, attended and was immediately smitten.

"The stuff people brought blows my mind," Ethington says. She traded jars of her handmade dulce de leche for a dozen eggs and an armful of homespun treats. But more than that, she came away with a sense of community.

At swaps, creative cooks and backyard gardeners share their talents and meet like-minded souls. Part open-house and part marketplace, they're more about building relationships than they are about moving merchandise. It's an economy based on friendly collaboration, with deals sealed through face-to-face bargaining.

Fueled by the latest in online networking and the resurgence of urban food production, swaps are springing up everywhere. The epicenter of the movement is Brooklyn, where the DIY zeitgeist has New Yorkers keeping bees and backyard chicken coops, putting up preserves and brewing beer. After first squeezing two dozen farmers and foodies into her 600-square-foot flat for a swap more than a year ago, 29-year-old Kate Payne has since established herself as godmother of the movement with her website, hipgirlshome.com.

"The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking" is a clearinghouse for swaps and has spun off groups from Connecticut to California, with several in Colorado. There are clusters in Boulder and Denver, and talk of one starting in Pueblo.

Here, an inspired Ethington volunteered to manage the website, blog and social media for what's now known as the Pikes Peak Community Cupboard. And it's doing well. By its second meeting in April, attendance tripled to 21.

"We want to inspire people as we were inspired by others around the country," Ethington says. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Two sister swaps split from her hub in April: the Manitou Springs Community Swap and the Bear Roots Trading Post.

The trading block

"Swaps aren't about exchanging money. Bartering is the whole point," says Eve Orenstein, 36, a professional event planner in Lafayette who occasionally takes roles singing opera. She organized the Mile High Swappers to serve the Denver metro area, and nearly 20 people attended the premiere meeting on May 22.

Orenstein explains the process this way: Each person brings about five offerings. It could be five loaves of bread, or bags of granola, or any combination of things. "You should be showing off what you can do," she says. "It can't be something from Whole Foods."

During the first hour of a Mile High meeting, goods are exhibited on a table. Bid sheets accompany each cache. Similar to a silent auction, swappers size up each item and note their bids. For instance: "I'll trade my cranberry chutney for your banana muffins." After the bid slips are full, the second hour is spent bargaining; the owner of the cranberry chutney seeks out the muffin's baker, and the offer is grabbed or rejected.

Pretty packaging is optional, and samples are nice, but labels and ingredient lists are a must. Since cash isn't involved, edible items aren't subject to commercial kitchen regulations. They fall under the realm of a social gathering like a potluck dinner, their website states.

While they share an overall idea, different groups have different rules. The Mile High Swappers limit offerings to food and drink, while at a recent Bear Roots swap, herbal salves, plant seedlings and live ducklings begged trades along with the more typical offerings of banana bread and strawberry-rhubarb jam.

And when it comes to bartering, the Bear Roots bunch favors a freestyle approach. As the group gathers, goods are put on display. Folks mill around the table, visiting and checking out the chow. About halfway through the event, organizer Randi Hitchcock announces time to trade. The pitch of conversation rises as offers are accepted or declined. Hitchcock says it's more personal than using bid sheets, although it can be a "mad dash with elbows flying to get items" as swappers scramble for each deal.

Hitchcock, 29 and a physical education teacher, encourages cooks to include recipes, to nip any competitive one-upmanship. And if an item is in short supply, recipes give others the option of cooking their own batch.

The Pikes Peak Community Cupboard draws the line at trading for work, but welcomes anything that's useful around the house. "One person brought produce bags made from old T-shirts, which were a popular item," Ethington says. Novelties like freshly churned butter and dried strawberries have graced her trading tables and were eagerly picked up. The basics — baked goods, garden-grown produce and preserves — are always in demand.

Branching out

Around the country, attendance at some swaps has gotten so large that they're using Eventbrite, an online ticket service. Meetings are free, but ticketing guarantees a spot for everyone who shows up.

"It's growing ridiculously," Ethington says. By its third gathering in April, Pikes Peak Community Cupboard cramped the home it had been meeting in. Ethington went on a hunt for larger quarters, and found willing sponsors at Coutura Design Inspirations, which has hosted three events, and Loonees Comedy Club. On June 26, she'll try Rustic Sunflower Farm in Black Forest, where she hopes to widen her audience.

Hitchcock's future plans include a skill segment at swap meets. "We have tons of talent," she says. Her husband, Steve Hitchcock, is the garden coordinator for Pikes Peak Urban Gardens; he and others could give growing tips, and crafters could teach soap-making. Also, with Pick & Pay sales underway at Harlan Wolfe Ranch, Bear Roots' traders will soon be able to exchange produce during swaps.

It's unlikely we'll soon return to the days when a country doctor would be paid for a house call in, say, ham, or bushels of fruit. But when you think about it, the opportunities for trading among neighbors, and encouraging new relationships among them, remain almost endless.

"After the last trade, people left in such a good mood," Ethington says. "They were super-charged and inspired. This is why it needs to keep going. It's a way of life we've lost, and didn't realize it."

scene@csindy.com

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