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The Lemon Lady: A True Story of How Bartering Pays Off

[Editor’s Note: Many situations can cause a person to barter [1] for goods and services.  It could be as simple as neighbors exchanging skills and services to help each other out, or it could be due to economic turmoil, currency inflation, a bug out situation, or natural disaster. Regardless of the situation, bartering will become currency in a disaster [2] and knowing how to use this skill to your advantage will be important. 

When good bartering relationships are forged, they become dependable, solid relationships where goods are honestly sold. Ruby Burks shares how a chance encounter started a long-time bartering friendship. ]

lemon lady [3]
Sometimes when you’ve been doing something for years, the charm wears off.  It stops being something you love and becomes just another chore that needs to be finished.  That’s how I had come to feel about working at the farmers’ markets.  It was becoming the same old same old every weekend.  I missed being able to plan fun events or outings with friends and family on the weekends.  No staying at summer BBQs late into the night, laughing and talking, for me.  I had to get up before dawn to load vehicles and drive to my markets.  I was getting burnt out and beginning to resent the very thing that made farming for a living feasible.

And then I met the Lemon Lady.  I happened to be looking her way as she pulled up to the market in her boat of an older model sedan.  The vehicle was spotless and well-cared for, despite being decades old.  She exited her car just as gingerly and carefully as she had parked it.  As she approached my booth, I could see she was dressed in what would have been the epitome of style in the 1960s.  I smiled to myself to see that she wore a smart little hat just as my Grandmother had when I was young.

She walked slowly in the short, mincing steps of the elderly- slightly bowed back and each step carefully placed for balance and no more than a half of a foot length in front of the other.  My booth was about fifty feet away from where she parked and even that short distance was too far for her to traverse without pausing a moment to rest.

I have very fond memories of my paternal grandparents, but was especially close to my Grandmother.  My Grandmother was often pressed into service when I was very young to care for me at her home when I was sick. And I was sick often.  Medical science wasn’t as advanced as it is today back when I was born and children like me, who seemed to catch everything and stay sick longer with it were often diagnosed simply as “failure to thrive”.  Or, as my Grandmother would say, I was a “poor keeper”.  I was the youngest of five children at the time and the undivided attention I received from my Grandmother when I was sick or doing poorly was wonderful.

There happened to be a lull in the market at the moment and I had no other customers in front of me to compete for my attention.  As she slowly approached my booth, on impulse I greeted her with the same respect and manners I had been taught as a small child: “Good morning, Grandmother.  How are you today?”  Unable to straighten her back, she looked up at me sideways, gave me a broad smile, and replied, “I’m well, Child.  How are you?”  She couldn’t have known how much her response would thrill me.  I’m fifty years old, my parents and grandparents have all passed, and I never expected to ever be referred to with that term of endearment again.

We chatted for a few moments about pleasantries and the weather and then I offered her a sample of the honey I had for sale.  She complimented me on its flavor and chose our smallest jar.  As I bagged her purchase, she opened an old coin purse, the kind with the brass closure that snaps together, and counted out $6.00 worth of change.  With the transaction finished, she wished me a good day and good sales and then walked straight back to her car.

Over the next few months, this exchange would be repeated in the same way each time.  She didn’t come every week, but when she did, she only came to my stall to purchase the smallest jar of honey and always counted out $6.00 worth of change.  With each visit, we talked a little more.  I learned that she was 82 years old and had lived in this area in the same house she and her late husband had raised their only child in, a son, since they bought the house way back when it was brand new.

I also learned that, just like my Granddad, her husband had planted citrus trees in their backyard when they first bought the home.  I loved citrus as a child, but I was allergic to it.  The only time my grandmother ever got exasperated with me was when I would slip out of her sight and hide under her orange or lemon tree to peel and eat as many as a five-year-old could before being discovered.

She didn’t get out much anymore except on Sundays to go to church, the “beauty parlor”, and to do her weekly shopping.  Her son lives out of town and has been trying to convince her she needs to sell the family home and move into a senior care facility, but according to her, she’s not ready to sell her house and move out of the place she’s lived for most of her life.

It was during one of these talks about her son and her home that I realized this is a bone of contention between them.  I can’t help but sympathize with her son and the worry he must go through having watched my own parents and grandparents through the twilight of old age, but at the same time I’m old enough to begin to worry about what life and loss of independence will be like for me in a future that’s approaching much too fast.

I didn’t say anything as she talked, but for the first time began to notice that the clothes she was wearing (as sharply dressed and smart looking as ever) were frayed and worn.  She seemed more stooped and slower in her movements than usual, and with a growing sense of unease, I began to wonder if there wasn’t some validity to her son’s argument.  She continued talking as she counted out her change, only this time, she didn’t have the full $6.00.  There was a moment of silence as we both realized this and then she put the jar of honey back and started to gather the change off my table without saying a word.

Before she could finish picking up her change, I placed the jar of honey in a bag, told her to leave the change, and that she could pay me the rest the next time she comes.  I stressed what a good customer she is, how much I enjoy our chats, and that I know I can trust her.  It took some convincing, but she reluctantly agreed.  She was, of course, as good as her word.

After that, I paid more attention to how frequently she came to the market and worried when she didn’t show up after a regular interval.  The time between her visits became longer, especially as it turned to winter.  It was during one of those infrequent winter transactions that she would again be short of change.

This time she confided that she sometimes struggled to afford the honey and that’s why her visits to the market were less frequent.   I wanted to just offer to give her a jar of honey for free, but if she was anything like my Grandmother, I didn’t want to hurt her pride.  And then I remembered the lemon tree in her backyard.

He husband planted a Meyer lemon tree- my most favorite citrus of all.  I told her that I would be more than happy to trade her Meyer lemons for honey.  She had never bartered before, so we spent a few minutes talking about how it works: you decide on a value for your lemons and then bring me as many in value as you would like for the amount of honey you would like to trade me.  She loved the idea so much that she insisted on putting the jar of honey back and promised that she would be back next week with lemons to trade.

And boy, did she bring lemons!  I was very busy with multiple customers and hadn’t noticed that she had been quietly ferrying partially-filled paper grocery bag after partially-filled paper grocery bag of lemons to the back of my booth and placing them on the table behind me.  When I made the deal, I assumed she would bring enough lemons for a small jar of honey!  I was suddenly lousy with lemons- more lemons than I ever thought her possible of picking.  She was almost giddy at the prospect of all the honey she could get for her trade.  I was wondering quietly to myself what the heck I was going to do with this load of lemons.  There was more there than I normally use in five years.

It’s been about three years now since I struck the deal with the Lemon Lady.  I don’t see her as often anymore now that her larder is stocked with honey once a year, but she still shows up like clockwork with her paper bagsful of lemons.  I still enjoy our chats as much as I ever did and have grown very fond of her.  I gift some of the lemons she gives me to my friends and family, but even then, there are far more than I could ever use fresh.  I now have a much larger collection of lemon recipes and each time I make one, I’m reminded of my Grandmother, the Lemon Lady, and remember why I love farming.

Here are a few of my all-time favorite recipes:

10 Amazing Lemon Recipes

Meyer Lemon & Vanilla Bean Marmalade [4] 

Bubbly Meyer Lemon Marmalade [5]  (*note: we make our own mead from our honey and I use it in the recipe instead of champagne or white wine)

Honey Lemon Marmalade [6]

Meyer Lemon Fermented Honey Mustard [7]

Sunny Meyer Lemon Limoncello [8]

Meyer Lemon: Citrus Salt, Simple Syrup, Powdered Pectin & Scrub [9]

Candied Meyers [10] – Dried Lemon Slices (*note: I like to sprinkle mine with either coarse salt or sugar before dehydrating.  Both are delicious to eat out of hand.  The sugared slices are like a candy and can also be used to sweeten tea and give it a nice lemony zing, and the salted ones are a great snack to take backpacking in the summer when it’s blazing hot on the trail and you need something to make your mouth water)

Lemon Detox Water [11]

Basil and Lemon White Wine Vinegar [12]

Lemon Thins [13](*note: Seriously, just the best lemon cookies ever)