Farm: an Intentional Community in Action
By Peter Schweitzer
The Farm is an intentional community on three square
miles in rural mid-southern Tennessee. It was founded in 1971 by Stephen
Gaskina former U.S. Marine and creative writing teacherand
about 250 young American hippies. It all started in 1970, when a group
of ministers invited Stephen to take his message of a non-violent spiritual
revolution to the heartland. At the time the U.S. was in the midst of
a war of generations, with a backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Kent State
killings, and mounting tension on college campuses. Stephens
three-month speaking tour became a caravan of hippies that traveled
around the country
in 50 schoolbuses converted into mobile-homes.
In San Francisco, Stephen had been conducting Monday Night Classesweekly
discussions with huge crowds on topics ranging from politics to compassion,
psychedelic tripping instructions to vegetarianism. Watching the hippies
pouring into the city from around the world, Stephen realized that
this momentous awakening of spirit were to be more than a footnote
in history, we needed to establish a few basic principles about how
were going to try to live. We were learning that what we did and said,
how we chose to live, and how honest, forgiving, bold, visionary and
holy we were could have a great impact on the future of the world.
After the Caravan, we decided to build a community based on our vision
of a healthy, productive and spiritual lifestyle. By a series of coincidences
and miracles we found land and an honest, fearless rancher who would
sell it to us. We made peace with our neighbors by declaring our intention
to be farmers and asking them to teach us. We built the Farm by salvaging
the old abandoned barns, farmhouses and empty factories around us.
learned to build, farm and print books. We created a rock n
roll band, called Stephen and the Farm Band, and sent it around the
country to college campuses, city parks and community halls. The message
to the hippies was: Its time to get off welfare, hard drugs
and alcohol, move out to the land, and get to work rebuilding America.
Dont take over the government, take over the governments
function, Stephen would holler. The message to our parents
generation and what we liked to call the honest squares
was, You dont need to be afraid of us. Were taking
care of ourselves and were peaceful. We thought of ourselves
as the flagship of the hippie movement.
By 1980 the Farm had grown to a population of about 1,500, and we had
satellite communities around the country. We had crews of volunteers
working in the South Bronx running an ambulance service and in Guatemala
training Mayan Indians to grow and process soybeans. We had 1,750 acres
of woodlands in the poorest county in Tennessee. We were completely
collective and vegetarian, and were living on under $5 a day per person.
We had our own clinic and midwives. We were sure that by the year 2001
everyone in America would be living like we were then. But, of course,
we still had a lot to learn; such as how to be more truly sustainable
over the long-haul which meant, for one thing, that we couldnt
take every homeless hippie vagabond who showed up at the gate. Also,
we had to start paying down the rapidly overwhelming debt that was
to put our land at risk of being seized by our creditors.
Today the Farm generates income for itself through the dues paid by
every member and company. On-the-Farm businesses include the Book Publishing
Company whose titles are mostly vegetarian cookbooks and Native American
topics. Solar Electronics International (SEI) develops, manufactures,
and sells nuclear radiation detection equipment worldwide. FarmSoy Company
produces certified organic soy products for both the Farm and off-the-Farm
markets. The Tempeh Lab is the first commercial producer of tempeh culture
in the U.S. Besides these, we have three construction and remodeling
companies and a company that produces solar hot water heaters and numerous
other small businesses.
Commitment to Non-violence
Were not all homogenous in our beliefs, but we simply do not
tolerate violence and we dont believe that anger is a useful emotion.
In fact, most of us would probably agree that the only emotion you can
really ratchet up to full volume without hurting somebody is love. Were
still hippies about things like peace and love.
We decided to be vegetarians before we found our land. The first reason
was the idea that we wanted to build a model for how people could live
more simply, lightly and efficiently on this shrinking planet. Raising
and slaughtering livestock didnt seem to fit with that vision.
When we discovered soybeans we realized we had found our source of high-quality
protein, milk, yogurt, cheese and ice-bean. Not everyone
on the Farm is a strict vegetarian. Were not dogmatic about it,
but we continue to promote vegetarian alternatives through the books
we publish and around the world through our non-profit development
Beyond the Farm
Plenty International was founded in 1974. We had no idea what form
it would take; we just decided it was important to do more for the
than just make the Farm a successful community. Two years later we
found ourselves in the central highlands of earthquake-ravaged Guatemala
we met a group of Mayansthe poorest, most oppressed, yet spiritual
and resilient people we had ever known. Over the next four years more
than 100 of us lived and worked among the Mayans, and they taught us
about what our role should be in partnership with people like themselves.
Together we rebuilt houses and schools that had been destroyed by the
earthquake. We set up primary care clinics and trained village heath
promoters, grew and made food from soybeans, installed gravity-fed
water systems for isolated villages, delivered babies and set up a
Cakchiquel language FM radio station in the town of Solola.
We went to the South Bronx in New York City in the late 1970s, after
the federal government declared it a disaster area, and fielded an ambulance
service and trained local residents to be state-certified emergency
medical technicians. In Washington, DC, we lobbied for the rights of
veterans and Native Americans who had been exposed to extreme radiation,
and sued the government to try to force it to close nuclear plants in
the U.S. We also co-founded what is now the largest low-income Hispanic
clinic in the U.S., Clinica Del Pueblo. Today we are supporting projects
in Belize, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Liberia, Dominica and at Pine Ridge
Reservation, South Dakota.
On the Farm, we have a program called Kids to the Country, which offers
urban youth an opportunity to get out of the city and away from the
dangers and hardships of life on the streets. They come from homeless
shelters, refugee centers and other institutions for at-risk kids, and
get a taste of the world where nature rules, where they can see the
stars, ride horses, swim and experience the kind of unbounded joy that
every child needs to know is possible.
Today we hold our land in common but economically we are more of
a cooperative than a collective. Our collective
broke down under the strain of many growing families wanting a higher
standard of living for their kids, the inevitable infection of cliques
and hierarchy that historically has plagued communal experiments and,
finally, the Reagan recession that battered poor people across America
who depended on local jobs, like construction. There are approximately
180 people living here now with a certain amount of flux and flow as
young people move out to make their own way in the world and some new
people move in. Some former members are moving back. Overall, somewhere
between eight and ten thousand people have lived here at one time or
In terms of what lies ahead, we would all like to see the Farm persist
as a protected woodland, rich in wildlife, and a sanctuary of sanity.
We aim to continue as a vibrant, living, evolving community of folks
dedicated to caring for each other and the land while reaching out
the world with kindness, supporting the highest human instincts for
fairness, standing up for the oppressed, being creative and revolutionary,
and living lightly and bravely on the Earth. Its the hippie dream,
dont you know, and it still waters the eyes and pierces the heart.
Whats truly encouraging is that our young people are every bit
as idealistic as we were when we came here, but theyre even more
talented and skilled and prepared to take on the worldand we
get along. What more could we ask for?
Peter Schweitzer is Executive Director of Plenty International
and a founding member of the Farm. For information about how to visit
or their businesses and non-profits, see thefarmcommunity.com,
thefarm.org or plenty.org.