When Gardner Stone uses the term "an elk on the hoof," he's referring to a deer-like creature with enormous antlers that's still living.
A master of bartering at his two Middlebury vehicle dealerships with 50 employees, Stone was talking about an arrangement that didn't quite work out as planned a few years ago.
"A man from New York state wanted to swap an elk on the hoof worth $2,500 for a truck, but he never delivered the animal. I had to take him to small claims court," Stone recalled.
The barters he's been overseeing for almost four decades generally are more pleasant encounters. Some of them can now be witnessed on a new TV reality program, "Family Trade," which airs two episodes back-to-back Tuesday nights at 8 on GSN (formerly the Game Show Network).
The March 12 premiere featured Stone, a Vermont native, and his grown children, Todd and Darcy, negotiating with various customers hoping to buy automobiles in return for money and something of value they own. It might be pigs, collectible dolls, maple syrup or an antique tractor.
The Stones also have been known to accept a hot-air balloon, a piano, pies, a phone booth, an airplane, even coffins.
"Two weeks ago, we got a new jet turbine-powered bar stool," Gardner Stone said during a phone interview from his winter getaway in Florida. "They're like golf carts that you can ride, going about 30 mph. It's a novelty. We take just about anything in trade. The list is endless."
He adds to that list on a daily basis at both his Ford-GMC business, G. Stone Motors, and the nearby G. Stone Commercial Division, which sells tow trucks, trailers, mobile homes and large-scale construction equipment with wheels.
"Dad will normally roll the dice," Darcy Stone, who manages the commercial operation, said. "My brother and I are a little more focused on the crunching the numbers."
Nonetheless, Todd Stone, vice-president of the car dealership, is proud of their work. "We've helped a lot of people get into vehicles they might not have otherwise," he said.
The Stone family then sells the oddball items taken in trade any way possible, first and foremost by trying to network with local people.
On the series debut, that process goes well when Gardner Stone re-barters some of the $2,500 worth of maple syrup a couple gives him toward a 10 percent down payment on a $52,000 truck. He persuades grocers to put the product on their store shelves, with no actual currency changing hands. Instead, it'll be in exchange for his own food purchases at some point down the line.
Todd Stone and a colleague have a less fruitful transaction while attempting to unload the dolls. An antique shop will charge a 40 percent commission to resell them, which would wipe out any profit.
When all else fails, Gardner Stone and his brood periodically turn to eBay or Craigslist.
Bartering from the beginning
With experience working for other car dealerships, Gardner Stone double-mortgaged his house to start his business in 1974 and bartering was already a given.
"As a young fella, I was always interested in buying, selling, trading and swapping," he noted. "Back in the day, an auto dealer had better be prepared to accept oxen and horses. It's so natural to me."
Gardner Stone pointed out that his ancestors came over on the Mayflower and "the Pilgrims bartered with the Indians."
When not selling cars, he managed to win five championships at tractor-pulling competitions. Gardner Stone's a man who likes to stay active. In Florida, he recently underwent surgery for a broken ankle and doctors told him to stay off his feet for three months.
"I can't be off my feet for three months," he insisted. "To me, this is just a bump in the road."
Bumps apparently do not frighten him. Darcy Stone described her father's bartering style as "a wild and crazy roller coaster ride."
He doesn't think of himself as someone who behaves irrationally. "I'm not a gambler but this is my Vegas," Gardner Stone said of the trading life.
On television, he does admit that "I always get excited by things from my childhood." Consequently, he pays $5,000 for six small, coin-operated carnival kiddie rides from the 1950s that make him a bit nostalgic for the old days. The trade involves forking over a used backhoe from his dealership.
To counter Todd and Darcy's insistence that the kiddie rides are junk, Gardner Stone has them appraised by Williston auctioneer Ethan Merrill - who appears as a judge on another reality show, "Picked Off." Merrill's verdict: The value might be at least three times the purchase price.
Shenanigans and hogwash
Regularly wearing a Stetson and smoking a thin cigar, Gardner Stone tends to stride into the Middlebury showroom with confidence. "I'm the boss," he reminds his son and daughter when they complain that another complicated deal is a folly.
But humor comes just as easily to him. "Hogwash," the elder Stone tells a farmer offering only $200 for the resale of a gigantic porker.
"When pigs fly," he says as soon as the guy ups the ante to $250. They settle on $300.
Like most of reality television, "Family Trade" tries to create suspense. Each negotiation ends with a sustained pause, as background music sets the mood before the participants finally shake hands. This show has been given its own countrified theme song, beginning with these lyrics: "You ain't got the cash, but you need something new..."
On camera, Todd Stone laments his father's "shenanigans." There's a clip that is repeated during each episode of Darcy Stone reacting to one of the more outlandish potential trades with "Omigod!" Although she and her brother frequently express shock about his decisions, Gardner Stone comes across as a wily "wheeler-dealer," to quote his own self-description.
When his children doubt the wisdom of trying to resell the maple syrup, for example, he proclaims that in Vermont this effort is a "no brainer."
And Todd Stone's refusal to shelter two miniature sheep in his barn that arrived in partial trade for a snowplow is quickly thwarted when Gardner Stone invites his 11-year-old granddaughter, Blair, over to check out the cute ruminants. The girl immediately bonds with them and her father relents.
"Dad always seems to have one up on us," Darcy Stone conceded during an interview.
"My kids are more conservative than I am," Gardner Stone said. "I just go by a gut feeling."
He does a brief pitch during each broadcast for one of the sponsors, Geico car insurance. But the successful 71-year-old entrepreneur points out that he suffers no foolishness.
"The show is as legitimate as we could possibly make it," he said on the phone. "I told the TV people, 'My reputation's at stake here, boys.' We don't put on any airs."
"Dad would not go for canned emotions," Todd Stone agreed. "There's some hokey-pokey on the show but not much."
Producers from the Lionsgate studio shot a "Family Trade" pilot during the summer of 2012 in order to pitch the idea to GSN.
"As soon as I saw a little of the footage, I thought 'Gardner Stone needs a TV show,'" explained David Schiff, the cable network's senior vice-president for programming and development, in a call from Los Angeles. "He's amazing."
(Schiff might want to reconsider his initial observation; the cigar-smoking wheeler-dealer in a Stetson quips that he thinks of GSN as "the Gardner Stone Network.")
A crew returned in the autumn to spend a month documenting the daily activities at the Stone dealerships for eight episodes that are airing two per night over a six-week period, which will include reruns.
Bartering isn't a new form of commerce, so what was special about this particular endeavor?
"We had put the word out that we wanted a series with a risk-and-reward situation," Schiff said. "The Stones are wonderful archetypes and there's such a visual variety of things they barter. Lots of livestock."
As for the necessary dramatic tension, he added, "Todd and Darcy's frustration really resonates when they're left to pick up the pieces."
The show is creating a lot of buzz for GSN, which probably will decide later this spring whether to renew it, according to Schiff. "It's done exactly what we'd hoped - bring in new viewers to expand our reach," he said.
And it doesn't hurt that fall foliage can be so spectacular.
"I kept telling everyone that the camera cannot get one ugly shot there," Schiff said of his visits to the Middlebury area. "All those old farmhouses and covered bridges and rolling hills! Vermont was a big factor for us in choosing the Stones. So many reality shows are set in the South, Appalachia or New Jersey. This is a part of America not seen much."
Pride of place was a big part of why Gardner Stone agreed to a role on TV. "I figured it would be great for the community and the state," he said. "I'd like the world to see our heritage, our hillsides, our local people."
If they're lucky, "Family Trade" viewers also might catch a glimpse of an elk on the hoof.