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September 2001
The 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 Gaskin—a former U.S. Marine and creative writing teacher—and 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. Stephen’s 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 Classes”—weekly 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 if this momentous awakening of spirit were to be more than a footnote in history, we needed to establish a few basic principles about how we 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. We 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: “It’s time to get off welfare, hard drugs and alcohol, move out to the land, and get to work rebuilding America.” “Don’t take over the government, take over the government’s function,” Stephen would holler. The message to our parents’ generation and what we liked to call the “honest squares” was, “You don’t need to be afraid of us. We’re taking care of ourselves and we’re 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 couldn’t take every homeless hippie vagabond who showed up at the gate. Also, we had to start paying down the rapidly overwhelming debt that was beginning 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
We’re not all homogenous in our beliefs, but we simply do not tolerate violence and we don’t 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. We’re 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 didn’t 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. We’re 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 organization, Plenty International.

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 world than just make the Farm a successful community. Two years later we found ourselves in the central highlands of earthquake-ravaged Guatemala where we met a group of Mayans—the 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 running 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.

Fast-forward
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 another.

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 to 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. It’s the hippie dream, don’t you know, and it still waters the eyes and pierces the heart. What’s truly encouraging is that our young people are every bit as idealistic as we were when we came here, but they’re even more talented and skilled and prepared to take on the world—and 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.

 


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