On a mild summer day in Lake County, Renee Geare and her daughter harvest kale and collard greens at an organic farm south of Lakeport, accruing credits they can deposit in a different type of bank.
Instead of a paycheck, they’re earning fresh organic vegetables and credit toward a multitude of services available through the Lake County time bank, where its 420 members trade their time instead of money.
The Geares and other time bank members are part of an expanding, worldwide phenomenon that has put a new twist on the ancient art of bartering, a practice that tends to rise during economic downturns.
“It’s helpful to the farmer and it’s helpful to our family,” Geare said.
Hundreds of time banks have cropped up across the United States in recent years, including ones in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The latter two have languished in recent years but efforts are underway to revive them.
Time banks typically revolve around the ideas of community support and egalitarianism.
“It says everybody has needs. Everybody has something to give,” said Merith Weisman, coordinator of Sonoma State University’s Center for Community Engagement.
The Lake County time bank, like most, calculates everyone’s time equally. One hour contributed by a babysitter is equal to one hour of a doctor’s time.
“Everybody’s hours are the same,” said Carol Cole-Lewis, a former IBM sales and marketing executive who co-founded the Time Bank of Thrive Lake County time bank in 2011 with Steve Elias, an attorney and self-help legal book author. Cole-Lewis is a New York native who lived in England for 20 years before deciding a change of weather and pace were in order. She moved to Lake County in 1998.
Time banks are different from bartering. Rather than two parties being tied to trading for each other’s services or goods, time bank members can spend their earned time “dollars” on services offered by any of its members.
“It’s not a one-to-one trade,” Cole-Lewis said.
Member and coordinator Marion Kaiser is one of the group’s more active time traders. She’s earned hours by organizing for the time bank, teaching yoga, sewing and giving decorating advice. She’s cashed them in on painting services, transportation, watercolor classes, massages and haircuts.
Kaiser said she’s on a very tight budget and the time bank allows her to purchase services she otherwise couldn’t afford.
To get the services she wants, she said she often recruits friends with the skills she’s seeking.
In addition to farm work, Geare said she and her family have helped build a deck and given art lessons. Working through the time bank has saved the family money, introduced them to other residents and taught them new skills, she said.
“It’s been very educational for us,” Geare said.
Bartering-type activities tend to rise when cash is tight, said Terry Daniels, who works both with the local group and the national time banking organization with which it’s affiliated.
Lake County chronically suffers from high unemployment, currently 9 percent, compared with Sonoma County’s 5 percent and Mendocino County’s 5.9 percent. Lake County’s high jobless rate may be one reason the time bank is flourishing, Cole-Lewis said.
“Lake County is very wealthy in time,” she said. “We’re one of the fastest-growing time banks in the country.”