Bartering: United States Agriculture and the Story of Evelyn Harris

The United States agriculture system grew using the bartering system. Mrs. Evelyn Harris continued this tradition as a way to help her family survive.

| March/April 1976

There's never been a better antidote to modern society's "everything has to cost money to be worth anything" insanity than Charles Morrow Wilson's classic little book,Let's Try Barter.

I mean, how can you argue with a guy who correctly points out that the direct trade of goods stops sales taxes "the way hanging stops the horse thief" and federal and state taxes "the way a Union Army cannonball stopped my Great-Uncle Luke at the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas"?  

I only wish we could reprint all of Let's Try Barter in this issue but, since we can't, here's a section from the book especially for you homesteaders out there.—JS.  

Through the years the family-run farm has proved itself a stronghold for barter of goods and services. United States agriculture is particularly indebted to the trading of farm labor, a practice as helpful in these years of the family farm's struggle to survive soaring wages and wavering farm indices as it was in frontier times when county neighbors traded labor to clear fields, raise barns and cabins, and trade the use of plows and oxen.

Barter has been one of the principal expedients for operating United States agriculture. It is one of the great hopes for keeping it going. It has made possible the introduction of many great crops of fruits, berries, grains, and vegetables. It offers present-day means for introducing future garden and berry crops and for a great expansion of community markets where surplus produce can be traded directly for many Kinds of surplus merchandise.

The tillable roots of barter grow deep; in our language they reach back to the ox-powered days of Piers the Plowman, or perhaps farther. Farming and barter fit together well because both are essentially specific and personalized. This has been proved by many farm people in many places. The most effective advancer of farm barter I have known is Evelyn Harris, sometimes known as the barter lady of the Chesapeake Shores.

The gallant story began almost a third of a century ago when Mrs. Harris found herself with a thousand-acre farm, five young children, and the prospect of a devastating depression which was already settling on the 500-acre fruit farm which the Harrises had inherited and worked very hard to operate. Following her husband's death, Evelyn found herself the sole support of her five children, plus four families of good neighbors who had intermittently "helped out" on the Harris farm. All were counting on "Miz Evey" for "cash money" wages and, even more importantly, for sorghum, flour and meal, cured pork, fresh eggs, veal and mutton, and other staff-of-life factors. Mrs. Harris set out to barter her way through. In one way or another she succeeded. Tax paying provided the first motivation. In the inevitable manner, her taxes came due — even while farm prices continued to fall apart.

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