How to Start a Crop Swap

Backyard gardeners and urban homesteaders are coming together to share excess produce in increasingly popular local meet-ups known as crop swaps, where neighbors exchange, say, beets and greens for apples and squash. Some crop swaps include trades for honey, eggs, flowers, and preserved or prepared foods, too.

These barters may begin online or at a local park or community space, no money changes hands, and everyone can go home with different fruits, vegetables, or herbs to eat. While the actual cash-free transactions can take place in mere minutes, in some cases, people linger long after the produce exchanges have taken place to visit with new friends, hang out with old pals, and pick up some pointers on cooking the goodies they scored, explained Carole Bennett-Simmons of Transition Berkeley, which runs two crop swaps in the Northern California town.

Some crop swaps ask folks to sign in, some weigh produce, as well. Most hang signs and put out tables and blankets for people to plop their goods on. Participants are given a chance to cruise the merchandise, as it were, and then exchanges take place, typically in an informal fashion if it's a small gathering, with people simply picking up what looks good to them and popping it into bags and baskets. For larger groups, say 20 or more, a system of swapping helps keep things courteous (see tip #9 below).

In the case of online swaps, the interaction is typically one-on-one in nature with both parties knowing in advance what they're getting back in exchange for their barter.

The shareable food movement – which includes crop swaps, food swaps (prepared and preserved edibles in the mix, too), pop-up stores, underground supper clubs, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, and cow-sharing groups – is a way people can create community connections, save money, and eat a wider range of foods. As the economic downturn continues, this kind of give and take is likely to attract more followers.

Find advice below from seasoned crop swappers who have blazed the trading trail in their communities.


Residents gather at a crop swap in Fawkner, Australia. Photo credit: Takver. Used under Creative Commons license.

Top 12 Tips for Crop Swap Organizers

1. Team up: Work with a small group of committed people, up to five is ideal, advised Bennett-Simmons, to share the load and divvy up duties both on the day and in advance of a crop swap. Sometimes a local like-minded group or organization may be willing to share resources with you. The Oak Park Crop Swap in Sacramento, for instance, has support from both a local nonprofit and Sutter Medical Center.

2. Find a spot: That old real estate adage – location, location, location – holds true in the case of picking a place for a crop swap.

When choosing a site, consider:

  • access to bike and public transportation routes

  • visibility – look for a spot that large numbers of the public can readily see and find

  • wheelchair accessibility

  • green space – gardeners love to see trees, plants, and flowers

  • size – the venue needs to have room for people to mix comfortably during the crop swap

  • shade, if it is hot weather

  • access to water, for clean-up purposes (and the thirsty)

3. Spread the word: Distribute flyers, talk up the event, use social networking (The Boston Food Swap has good suggestions.), and solicit local coverage from online, print, and broadcast media.

4. Have clear guidelines: No cash, produce only or also prepared foods, pesticide-free or organic fruits and vegetables ... whatever rules the group sets, make sure they're conveyed to participants. The Oak Park Crop Swap spells it out online: "No pesticides or petrochemicals, only organic gardening methods, arrive on time for trading, and have a great time!" Virtual crop swaps, such as Massachusetts Food Trader, clearly outline rules for advertising (regarding appropriate language, legality, and so forth).

5. Make it easy for people to find the crop swap: Use the creativity of the group to create signs out of reused materials. The Berkeley crop swap clan happens to include a couple of fabric artists who made large signs out of recycled cloth.

6. Be reliable and consistent: Hold the crop swap at the same time, same place, on a regular basis, whether weekly, monthly, or seasonal. Then people come to expect the event, and make it part of their routine, said Bennett-Simmons.


Crop swappers of all ages come together at the Transition Berkeley event. Photo credit: Christina Diaz. Used with permission.

7. Organize the bounty: Make it easy for attendees by labeling the areas where people can put their crops and spell out what goes where – perhaps vegetables, fruit, and delicate items like eggs on tables, and hardier items like potted produce, starters, and pumpkins on blankets on the grass, along with any large quantity of produce, such as a bumper crop of lemons.

8. Add some personal (green) touches: The Berkeley crop swappers made colorful cloth drawstring bags with Crop Swap labels out of recycled curtains. Participants are invited to use the bags (thus eliminating the need for paper or plastic ones) when gathering small or easily bruised items like stone fruit to take home, and asked to return them the next time they stop by the swap, explained Bennett-Simmons.

9. Set the tone: If the group is too large to comfortably select items on offer all at the same time – or if there are highly coveted goodies – make the process civil by having swappers pick a playing card when they place their produce in the swap, advised Bennett-Simmons. The order of the cards offers a fair and calm way for participants to come to the tables. Start with aces one week and then begin with kings the next, allowing four folks at a time to pick produce. Give limits, too, on how much of any one item can be gathered if it's in high demand ... say, a couple of peaches per swapper.

10. Involve all the generations: Retirees may have more time to volunteer to organize an event; young ones are often happy to help sort produce, call cards, or weigh items.

11. Get to know neighbors near the swap site: They may be allies in this edible adventure, attend the event, and, equally importantly, may allow the group to borrow tables or store items at their house or garage, which can considerably cut down on schlepping duties for swap organizers.

12. Play it safe and other online specific crop swap advice: The pair behind the Massachusetts Food Trader encourage swappers to conduct a first exchange with a new swapper at a mutually agreed upon, mutually convenient public location, for obvious safety reasons.

For online swaps, someone on the team needs the skills to handle the back-end web work, such as the food-sharing platform, advised Brian Connelly of Portland Food Exchange, a virtual site that's been up and running since April 2010. It helps to have someone who is social media savvy on board, as well.

And he noted that with a virtual crop swap, it's still important to see fellow produce-swapping enthusiasts in real life, too. "We try to meet up for a few microbrews every couple of weeks to go over ideas, which really helps," said Connelly, referring to the food exchange team. As for meeting other swappers: "The Internet definitely has a place in all of this, but it is so much more meaningful to talk to someone about the Portland Food Exchange while standing waist deep in a pumpkin patch!"

Resources:

Transition Berkeley

Oak Park Crop Swap

Portland Food Exchange

Massachusetts Food Trader

Boston Food Swap

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