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Area swaps provide outlets for abundance — and create community




'Contrary to our somewhat suggestive name, Mile High Swappers has nothing to do with trading spouses on an airplane. Sorry!"

Now that we have that cleared up, thanks to a FAQ page on milehighswappers.com, let's examine what these folks actually do. Groups limited to 30 people meet periodically for a couple hours at various venues to exchange goods. The central caveats are that items — which range from backyard produce to pickled goods to craft-works — must be handmade or homegrown, and no money shall exchange hands.

So, a dozen eggs for some earrings — done. Jar of honey for some soap? You bet. Go ahead and see how far that bunch of tomatoes will get you. Just don't bake weed into your brownies, MHS requests.

Oh, and "we want food swaps to be zero-waste events, so go ahead and use jars from your recycling bin," they encourage, because swaps aren't regulated by standard federal food-safety guidelines. However, trying to swap your mega-dank homebrew is actually illegal, since the IRS views bartering as a form of sale, and making alcoholic beverages with intent to sell is illegal. So leave that at home, too.

Yes indeed, we are talking about a good old-fashioned barter system. Historically, our nation has seen rises in bartering around recession periods and unsettling world events, but on an ongoing basis national businesses such as International Monetary Systems (imsbarter.com) operate with tens of thousands of members on more of a business scale. IMS, which is active in the Pikes Peak area, takes a matchmaker's fee to link buyers and sellers and to provide virtual trade dollars as a currency to spend more broadly on anything from marketing to travel to tradework.

In an article posted on BarterNews, writer James Stout calls the practice a "micro-economic system" that can positively affect credit and assist cash-poor people, while being less inflation-susceptible. "When millions of people are bartering, it becomes more than just an individual action; it becomes a supplemental economic system, which both complements and alters the macrocosmic system."

Now feel the true power of that fistful of arugula in your hand ... yeah, baby!

OK, not exactly. Focusing back on the neighborhood scale of MHS, Pikes Peak Swappers (bit.ly/1IcPWtM) and the soon-to-arrive Sunset Harvest Produce Swap (sunsetgh.com), we're really just talking about tiny groups of self-reliant and trend-compliant types who enjoy not only husbandry and homey pursuits but also potluck-style community interaction. Though there are seeds of potential for changing the way we interact with one another, a revolution's less likely than a nifty social hour, or two.

"It's a thing I do for fun, to meet people ... to do something creative and build community around it," says Eve Orenstein, an opera singer and theater company development director who founded MHS in mid-2011, after moving from Brooklyn. She'd heard of swaps before but taken no real action until realizing that Denver lacked a visible one. Soon, she was awash in kombucha and sourdough starters and trading occasional kitchen-disaster stories about the forgotten, critical salt ingredient or mushy milk that never quite became yogurt.

Growing interest spawned a Boulder swap and others, with attendance and common goods fluctuating seasonally. Swapping in Colorado Springs started around that same time with Craig McHugh of A Joyful Noise Farm (now Pikes Peak Small Farms). He'd come across a swap while traveling, loved the concept, and launched Front Range Trading Post, which ran for roughly a year. Eventually, others picked up where he left off and formed Pikes Peak Swappers.

Care and Share Food Bank kitchen and garden coordinator Donna Ross, who attended McHugh's first swap, now co-organizes near-monthly meetups hosted in spots like Seeds Community Café. She notes a very similar format to that of MHS, with whom she networks and posts PPS events. Both groups tend to collect donations of excess goods for food banks or organizations like Seeds from participating traders, as a secondary effort.

Which is similar to what Valerie Belding wants to do with Sunset Harvest's extra bounties if she can pair up with a men's or women's home. SH is a newly conceived swap based out of Belding's Knob Hill-area nursery, Sunset Greenhouse. It's been linked to Phelan Gardens' family holdings (Phelan being her maiden name) since 1976, but dates back to 1946.

Belding envisions bimonthly swaps through mid-November limited to produce only, but is hosting an organizational meeting at 10 a.m., June 6 to seek input on the format. She hopes to inspire diversification of what traders grow, but also to encourage folks to grow whatever they're really good at — so they can then swap it for something at which they may not excel.

Belding says she didn't even know that organized local swaps existed up until last year, when an inundation of one of her garden's star performers got her and her husband thinking and searching.

"We were just tired of broccoli," she says, "and wanted to know if anyone else had anything else out there."

As it turns out, necessity doesn't just dictate creativity — it also inspires community. Barter on, brothers and sisters.

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