Bartering: United States Agriculture and the Story of Evelyn Harris

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ILLUSTRATION: FOTOLIA/PATRIMONIO DESIGNS
Need your car fixed? Want homegrown food? Try to barter.

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.

Mrs. Harris journeyed to the county seat for a
heart-to-heart talk with the tax collector. The tax
collector had no talk to offer beyond reiterating that the
taxes were due and had to be paid. With persistence the
young widow pointed out that she simply could not spare the
last of her operative cash for paying taxes and therefore
requested permission to pay them in farm produce.
Eventually the collector referred her to the county judge.
The county judge was likewise confused. However, after
lengthy reflection the dignitary recalled that the county
road builders were in need of locust posts for building
roadside guard rails. The Harris farm had many acres of
tall young locusts. The county required about five thousand
“rounds” of the long-lasting posts and would pay
thirty-five cents apiece.

Mrs. Harris took on the assignment. She employed county
neighbors to fell the young locusts and cut the slender
trunks into poles of specified dimensions. Since two
thousand of the trees were required to fill the order for
guard posts, the choppers were obliged to clear away some
of the vast clutter of discarded tops and branches so that
the county trucks could get in. The sale of five thousand
locust guard posts paid haulage and choppers’ wages and
netted about $1,600 in cash, enough to pay the abhorrent
taxes for three years. Even more valuably, it opened the
way for a great and winning game of barter.

Tops and unused limbs of the young locusts make superior
fuel wood. Mrs. Harris had neighbors who were eager to
clear up the tops and take pay in farm-raised foods, of
which the Harris farm still had an abundance. They chopped
and stacked about a hundred cords of locust tops and limbs.
Using her husband’s truck, the barter lady began trading
locust firewood for needed groceries. Next she began paying
doctor and dentist bills with the same harvest. She next
succeeded in swapping the cordwood for needed bakery
products and for bus travel to and from the town high
school for her two older children.

Mrs. Harris set out to expand her farm barter further. For
several years the Harrises had been growing, harvesting,
and feeding several hundred bushels of corn to livestock
and poultry. Following the old American extravagance, the
corn cobs had been wasted. The Barter Lady knew from
experience that corn cobs are excellent kindling and one of
the best fuels for broiling fires. She carried the
knowledge to town, and the local barber volunteered to
credit her with a dozen haircuts for her young sons in
return for a truckload of clean corn cobs delivered to his
woodshed.

Her next move was to pay for beauty-parlor services with
home-raised frying chickens. In a nearby town she met a
garage and filling-station owner whose hobby was raising
baking chickens. The garage keeper wished to have setting
eggs and newly hatched chicks and was eager to swap
gasoline, motor oil, and mechanic’s services for them. Mrs.
Harris happily provided her share of the barter from home
sources. She next located a grain-mill operator who agreed
to swap ten barrels of well-milled flour for fifty bushels
of her wheat, also to grind her corn to meal on shares.

Mrs. Harris, an accomplished pianist, for several years had
been contributing music for the farm women’s club to which
she belonged. The club director asked if she would be
willing to take part in the club’s convention in Baltimore,
all expenses provided in return for playing the piano. The
Barter Lady accepted happily, bartering about six hours of
musicianship for a much-enjoyed four-day vacation in the
big city. Next, she swapped home-raised roasting chickens
with a coastal steamship line for a vacation cruise for her
family.

The Harrises suffered some rather serious surgery bills and
found that, while most merchandise became cheaper as farm
prices fell, surgery fees stood fixed. A local dentist
accepted fresh fruits, fine berries, native fowl, and
farm-fresh eggs in payment for dental services for the
entire family. But the surgeon kept sending bills for the
two appendectomies until the Barter Lady learned that he
cherished one thing above all others — an old-fashioned
week-long fishing vacation. Mrs. Harris offered to supply a
simple but enticing fishing vacation, complete with
homecooked meals, live minnows, crayfish, night crawlers,
catalpa worms, red worms, grasshoppers, and moral
encouragement in settlement of the surgery. The surgeon
eagerly accepted, proved himself an ideal house guest as
well as an able fisherman, and marked the operations paid
in full.

Again the Barter Lady had to meet her taxes. This time she
permitted county and state highway crews to dredge and load
out sand and gravel from some of her acres which front on
Chesapeake Bay. Her taxes were met, and in celebration she
tried a variant of barter. She traded a standing walnut
tree as down payment on a piano. When wool prices tumbled
to less than half the usual farm-door low, she had her wool
clip milled into finished warm cloth. She personally shaped
the cloth into sample-measure double blankets, crib
blankets, and auto robes, all warmer, softer, and more
generously sized than those sold in stores. She then
bartered the homemade woolen goods for school books, shoes,
suits, dresses, and other family needs. The strategy here
was especially fine. Nobody wanted shorn wool. But when it
was changed to warm cloth, many were eager to swap for it.

The Barter Lady’s progress showed other helpful aspects.
For one, she was able to keep her swapping activities close
to home; in great part on home premises, as when neighbors
came with offers to help harvest the fruit crops on shares
or to “work out” the price of a fat pig or a bred ewe or a
baby beef. She effected about a third of her barters in
nearby towns and villages, where she was able to swap with
maximum control for goods and services required directly by
her family, her farm, or herself.

Presently the Barter Lady began using the mails to advance
her swapping. Reading is her favorite hobby, and the
scarcity of cash had greatly reduced her supply of books
and magazines. Evelyn began writing letters to the
circulation managers of her favorite magazines, suggesting
that she be permitted to pay for the subscriptions in
apples. They were not ordinary apples; they were her very
special, personally selected greenings, winesaps, and other
honest-to-goodness eating apples, home-raised, home
harvested, and especially stored to supply what most apples
lack nowadays — flavor. She promptly discovered that
most magazine circulation managers have a liking for good
eating apples. Practically every letter brought a gracious
answer and an enthusiastic acceptance of the swap offer.

So Mrs. Harris favored one of the well-known book clubs
with a letter suggesting that she be permitted to pay for a
year’s selection of books with two bushels of Nancy Hall
sweet potatoes and eight fat, home-dressed roasting
chickens, the latter to be shipped air express at the
expense of the recipient. The book club promptly answered,
“Indeed,” and scribbled the post script “delighted.”

Thus through the years Evelyn Harris used well-planned
barter to raise her family, keep up the productiveness of a
fine farm, help neighbors, and make good friends. One of
her most admirable accomplishments has been the use of farm
barter to demonstrate the distinctive quality of
home-raised foods. As any observant consumer knows, the
real food value of harvests never can be gauged competently
just by the gallon or pound or price tag. Food is life and
the principal cost of living. Nutrition and flavor, which
are frequently as one, are the real measures of food
values. Yet the continual hurry-scurry marketing of farm
crops takes appallingly little account of flavor or
nutritive worth.

Tragically, too, the prevailing direction in crop genetics
and grading is toward volume of yield; much more frequently
than not, maturity and honest ripeness are either evaded or
faked. The great bulk of our fruits, our favorite berries,
tomatoes, or food vegetables are harvested far ahead of
actual ripeness; oranges almost invariably are dyed;
commercial pack tomatoes are picked completely green and
permitted to turn pink in storage. Chemical preservatives
and coloring afflict a high percentage of the meats and
meat products we consume. Too frequently potatoes, carrots,
beets, and green vegetables are taken off soils long since
changed to pits of chemical fertilizers; they cannot
possibly taste good or approach complete nutrition. As a
rule, commercial apple crops are no longer bred,
propagated, or sprayed to taste like apples. Too much of
our fowl, eggs, dairy products, beef, and pork taste like
what they preponderantly are, viz., the outputs of
livestock factories rather than creatures born in sunlit
fields, pastures, and feeding pens. We are the number-one
farming nation of the earth and we spend more for food per
capita than any other nation. And while paying for the most
expensive food consumed in any comparably populated area of
earth, we endure much of the worst-flavored and least
nutritious harvests eaten by man.

The paradox here is not wholly unavoidable. Barter can be
made one of the more consistent remedies. Evelyn Harris and
many other devoted farmers have long since demonstrated as
much. Because it is direct, personalized, and comparatively
slow motioned, barter is the best facility for respecting
and gaining from the flavor and nutritive values of
harvests. Farming has kept at least the living roots of
personalized trade, abetted by personalized integrity of
production. For these roots, barter serves as the living,
life-sustaining soil.

Reprinted by permission of the Devin-Adalr Company,
Inc.,Old Greenwich, Conn. Copyright 1960 by Charles Morrow Wilson.