Birmingham News 2004

The Farm Lifestyle – 2004

Byline: STACI BROWN BROOKS News staff writer
Source: Birmingham News
Publication Date: 11/14/2004 Publication Info: Volume 117 Issue 211, LIFESTYLE, 01-E


Jason Deptula wasn’t even born when a San Francisco professor and his idealistic band of followers founded a commune in Tennessee called The Farm

– an enclave where peace signs and minibuses substitute for the hand waves and SUVs elsewhere. But 33 years later, he shares their vision. ”I have a strange connection and I don’t know what it is,” the bearded, turquoise bandanna-wearing 31-year-old said. ”I’m the age of the children of the hippies, yet I feel more like these older ones. I don’t know why. It could have to do with a past life or something.” Deptula proudly accepts the label: He’s a hippie, too. He has even adopted a friend’s acronym of what that means: ”Happy Intelligent Person Pursuing Infinite Enlightenment.”

Decades after hippies first rattled the national consciousness and drove their own parents crazy, a second generation as well as newcomers to The Farm are sharing the responsibility of sustaining the community’s businesses, projects and let’s-leave-thisworld-better ideals. The residents of The Farm, which no longer calls itself a commune but ”an intentional community,” have dwindled from an all-time high of 1,200 members (and hundreds more visitors) in 1981 to about 175 now. Slightly more than 100 are part of the first generation of The Farm, about 35 miles north of the Alabama-Tennessee state line. But the thirst for an alternative to a consumer society that drew Deptula and his wife, Alayne, will continue to lure others, he said. Before they moved there three years ago to have The Farm’s midwives assist in the birth of their daughter, Alyxandra, they had no prior connection to the community. The attraction, he said, is ”about allowing yourself to be an individual among individuals rather than being part of a culture that focuses on everybody trying to be like each other.”

The professor who started it all, Stephen Gaskin, and his wife, Ina May, are gray now. They look like the far out grandparents of the radical settlers in their old photos. Ina May Gaskin wore Princess Leia knots rolled near her ears and a ”Homebirth Rules” T-shirt under a vest. Stephen’s hair is not as long as it used to be, and his hairline has run away from his face. He shares the lanky frame of the guy who sat crosslegged before hundreds of disillusioned youths in San Francisco during classes, who led them in a caravan to the South, who served time in the mid- ’70s for The Farm’s crop of pot. Growing marijuana now is against Farm rules. ”You could lose your (Farm) citizenship for it. It’s absolutely not tolerated,” Gaskin said. After all The Farm has been through, Gaskin said he’s confident it won’t fade when its first generation does because their children are so eager to keep it going. ”They’re champing at the bit. But being young people, they think ‘Boy! It sure looks fun to fly that ship.’ Not noticing that we bought it and built it and maintained it and keep it going,” Gaskin said as he leaned back in a chair on his back porch next to his wife, Ina May. ”They’re just now beginning to wise up if you want your hands on the wheel, you’ve gotta come in and help put the ship together, too.”

The Farm’s just not what it used to be. First off, it hasn’t been a farm in years. Asphalt dissects dormant green pastures. Hay bales and personal gardens are among the few symbols that even hint at agriculture on the mostly vegan community’s 1,800-acre expanse. Farm businesses include a book publishing company, a soy dairy, a media production facility and a factory that makes radiation detection instruments.

The Farm’s nonprofits, including the Midwifery Center, the international aid group Plenty and the Ecovillage Training Center, have national and international impact. The training center grew out of a need for veterans of aid projects to share knowledge. ”It’s kind of a waste to get to be approaching 60 and seeing all of the stuff that you’ve done over the previous 30 or 40 years not really getting out to where it needs to go,” said the center’s founder Albert Bates, wearing a ponytail and sandals. ”The next generation coming up is saying, ‘Gee, we’d really like to learn this stuff.”’ Bates took a break from sorting documents to recycle into paper-based bricks, an alternative construction material, to explain some of the fixtures on the training center site. Bamboo makes up the bones of a greenhouse, and straw bales fill it in. ”What happens is the straw gradually decomposes in the moisture, it puts out heat so it keeps the greenhouse warm. We have to change out the straw in the wall about once every two years but it’s about a 30-minute process,” Bates explained. Its solar-heated showers are good for 30 baths a day. Wetlands and filtering plants purify the soapy water. Old satellite dishes serve as roofs for outbuildings. A mud lodge that will have a sod-covered ”living roof” is a 10-year teaching tool. ”It’s sort of like a distilled concentration of what The Farm has been doing in isolated pockets and individual households and projects in other parts of the world for the last 30 years,” Bates said. ”We’ve kind of concentrated it all in one place so that you can come and get the best of what we’ve learned in a short amount of time.”

‘Worth our oxygen’

The aid enterprises reflect residents’ responsibility to ”be worth our oxygen,” Stephen Gaskin said. Because the first generation of Farm residents has provided a blueprint of activism, he’s encouraged their children will go further. ”We’re in a position that when our kids come to us and say ‘Man! Have you noticed the world is screwed up?’ Instead of saying no, no, it’s not too bad, we say glad you noticed,” he said. ”This is what we’re doing about it. Do you want to help?”

Julia Skinner, 20, has traveled to places including Italy and Mexico, but is confident The Farm, the place she was born, will remain her home. ”I’m involved with a lot here,” she said, while labeling boxes at radiation detector-maker S.E. International, where she is office manager. She’s made multiple trips to an American Indian reservation in South Dakota to work on aid projects with Plenty. She’s treasurer of with UnityWorx, a group of Farm youth. The group is working on building a community center. She’s also its representative for The Farm School.

Lee Skinner, Julia’s brother, returned to The Farm after trying college and carpentry for a while. For now, the 24-year-old lives in a two-room, solar-powered cabin. ”I’m trying to see what I want to do next,” he said after helping a friend, John Hozapfel celebrate his 28th birthday with soy ice cream and cake. Even though he wants to travel more, he said community life works because its basis is so elementary. ”People think it’s this ideal, utopian community. It’s not,” he said. ”The whole agreement of being in a community is basically agreeing to deal with other people’s (issues).”

Unlike The Farm’s sons and daughters, Peter Kindfield, 47, took a leap from his New York City metropolitan lifestyle to country community living without having been a part of it before. Kindfield, a former professor at City College of New York and Brooklyn College, and his wife and two children moved to The Farm a few months ago. A main draw, he said, was the chance to be involved in The Farm School, where he’s a teacher. ”I have been a professor of education and a public schoolteacher and all this stuff and I’ve never been able to be involved in my own children’s education,” he said. The 21 students in grades K12 are basically being homeschooled together, principal Sharon Wells said of the school’s teaching style. The school’s teacher-student ratio is 1 to 5. During one lesson, Kindfield’s grade schoolers talk about the failure of their collaborative science project. They are trying to build a roof for their bike enclosure. As Kindfield loosely guided the discussion, a couple boys rolled across the floor and one girl spun around in a chair. Kindfield didn’t appear interested in their fidgeting. Being in a classroom like that is something Kindfield said he’s looked forward to his entire career. ”The truth of the matter is that about two years ago I said if I was gonna die now what would I regret and I realized that what I would regret is that I’ve never done this thing that I’d been thinking about all this time,” he said.

Back on the dirt

The Gaskins say the attraction that makes Farm children return and draws new residents is the same thing that brought them to the middle of Tennessee decades ago. Simply put, they were looking for a place to ”get it on with the dirt,” as Stephen once said in a historical account. ”We were on a path of rediscovery of what it is to live in community,” said Ina May Gaskin, an author of books on childbirth and a legendary midwife. ”To know a little bit of what it must have been like for our grandparents’ generation, our great grandparents’ generation, where you concentrate on cooperation and minimize competition. . .It has to do with really how we treat each other.” ”Core values. Family values,” her husband chimed in, then paused. ”Which do not necessarily belong to the Republicans.” The Farm is one of the longest-running intentional communities in the nation, but there are at least three in Alabama: Vine & Fig Tree in Lanett, L’Arche Mobile and Common Ground Community in Blountsville. According to the Fellowship for Intentional Community (, Vine & Fig Tree is open to new members and Common Ground is not. L’Arche is listed as the largest Alabama community with 40 adults who are mentally handicapped or who are their assistants. Stephen Gaskin will be inducted into the Counterculture Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, next week. Though Stephen said at age 69 he’s a beatnik, he and the hippies share a common heritage. ”The hippies had ancestors behind them who were the beatniks and the civil rights guys. Older than that there were what they called the bohemians, who were artists and writers and stuff in Europe who had to bail out of a hostile environment. If you follow that trail going back, you get into Voltaire,” he said. ”It goes all the way back to Socrates. . . . There’s always been that thread coming through. The hippies were never expected to take over the world. That’s not what they’re about. But they are a vitamin. No culture is healthy that doesn’t have some form of that vitamin in it.”

How The Farm sustains itself

When The Farm was founded in 1971, members agreed to share their money and property. In the early ’80s, residents decided The Farm had no future as a complete commune. The communal way of life fell victim to residents needs to more realistically provide for their families, and for The Farm, so they shifted to a dues-based structure. It now labels itself an ”intentional community” with its members, accepted by a twothirds vote, paying a $3,000 one-time fee and monthly rent of at least $65. About half of the residents make a living working for Farm businesses. Others work off The Farm, in the home or go to school. The fees pay for The Farm’s water system, road maintenance, staffing and other responsibilities of its government. The governing bodies of The Farm are an elected board of directors and membership committee. The Farm’s annual budget and operating expenses run around $100,000. About 25 people have joined during the past 10 years. Not all have stayed. The Farm’s population is about 175.

Source: Douglas Stevenson, spokesman for The Farm

Farm Businesses and Nonprofits

The Book Publishing Company. The small press publisher’s title list includes books on vegan and vegetarian cooking, other health and diet matters, as well as American Indian culture.

Ecovillage Training Center. The center is a place where workers in a network of international projects can share knowledge on solar power, permaculture, rural electrification and other infrastructure matters. ”Individuals are not waiting for the Ford Foundation, they’re not waiting for the government to say, ‘Here’s the money. Go do it.’ They’re going ahead and doing it on their own,” the center’s founder Albert Bates said of helping people who need it.

The Farm Midwifery. The Farm midwives have delivered more than 2,000 babies since 1970. ”You can get people through birth safely, with style and grace, and they come out of it with a kind of wisdom and self-confidence that is worth any hours of pain,” said Ina May Gaskin, an author and well-known midwife.

The Farm School. About 20 students attend the alternative school. Its teacher-student ratio is 1:5. FarmSoy. The ”dairy” makes soymilk and tofu with soybeans from a farmer in west Tennessee. Its products have been certified organic since 1992.

Plenty. The international development agency has taken on projects to help indigenous people in countries including Belize, Guatemala and Liberia.

S.E. International. The company provides radiation detection equipment to the Department of Homeland Security, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and other agencies, a spokeswoman said. With $2 million in annual sales, it is The Farm’s most profitable business.

Staci Brown Brooks, Staff Writer
The Birmingham News, P.O. Box 2553, Birmingham, AL 35202 (205) 325-2441

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