The original Hippy Commune is still known for its tie-dye T-shirts together with high technology, and a wisdom born of experience
An Interview With Albert Bates, by Robert and Diane Gilman
The Farm began as a communal group of 320 “Hippies,” followers of their prophet, Stephen Gaskin. They were fleeing the hard drugs and tourism of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district in a fleet of converted school buses, finally settling in Tennessee in 1971. Having spent all their communal money on a downpayment for their new 1,750-acre home, they used the buses for shelter for years while they worked to build businesses and learned to, well, farm.
In its twenty year history, The Farm has survived some wild swings of fortune, swelled and diminished in size – and even developed into an influential force in Tennessee state politics. It is also a source of much technological and social innovation: among The Farm’s inventions are the first Doppler fetal pulse detector, a portable ionizing radiation detector, and passive solar space-heating technology.
Long-time member Albert Bates, who is also the author of Climate in Crisis, assessed the lessons learned at The Farm over its twenty-year history. Contact The Farm in Summertown, TN 38483.
Robert: What is the first thing you would say to people who are interested in developing community?
Albert: The main thing is having a group of people who want to spend their time – their lives – together. If you have that, all the rest is detail. If you don’t have that, that’s where you have to start.
Robert: The Farm swelled at one point to 1,400 people, but now is back down to 300. What would you say is the ideal size for a self-sustaining community?
Albert: If you look at prehistoric societies, they were typically comprised of small clans of twelve to thirty people. That’s a size that seems to have a certain inherent efficiency – tasks can be delegated, or enough people can combine their strength or skill to come out with something that’s better for the group as a whole than they would have produced as individuals.
Ninety percent of the intentional communities in this country have been of this typical clan size. At the Farm, we got off into a slightly different track. In the sixties, everything was possible, and we just ignored historical experience and accepted anybody. As a result, it was somewhat chaotic here, though it did seem to hold together for a number of years.
But once you get to small town or city size, you lose intimacy, and you gain bureaucracy. One hundred is a good size for a group to become self-sufficient. That size offers a wide diversity of possible vocations and the ability to switch between jobs as the inclination moves you. When the average Hutterite community gets much bigger than 150 or so, for example, they split off into two smaller groups and grow up to 100 again. One hundred also seemed to work pretty well with the satellite farms we had.
But I’m not so sure 100 is optimal for The Farm. We’re finding here that our current size – about 300 – is actually too small. We might add 50 or 100 people and be more comfortable, because we need to balance the size of the child population: how many are in school, what ages, and so on. We need to be large enough to support the school, a clinic, and other material needs.
Diane: How has The Farm managed to survive economically over the years?
Albert: When we first got here in 1971, the idea was to become farmers. We started with a pair of Belgian mares and a plow, growing sorghum and making molasses. We sold it under the brand name, “Old Beatnik Pure Lewis County Sorghum.”
That wasn’t enough, so people would go out and work in town. Sometimes we’d end up taking a busload of 60 people to Nashville to work for $1.25 an hour. Gradually, a few more businesses started to spring up. A lot of them have come and gone, and today we have about 30 businesses. The major ones include a printing and publishing company, a small electronics firm, a Mayan goods trading company, a woodworking shop, and lots of vegetarian food products. We’re probably the single largest producer of innoculants for tempeh in the world. And of course, there’s the Dye Works. Tie-dyes are a kind of traditional craft among Hippies, and we’ve carried it to its peak.
There are also three major community-based non-profit organizations: Plenty USA, which is an alternative foreign policy institution through which we share our resources with poor people around the world; Rosinante, which creates projects that challenge the limits of institutions like the American health care system; and the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools, which provides a communications forum for the alternative school movement in this country.
Diane: What would you say is your greatest strength as a community?
Albert: Our greatest strength, ironically, is just having been together as long as we have. There’s a core population now that carries knowledge of both our gigantic blunders and our successes, and that keeps us wise. But in a sense, our history is also our weakness, because having already tried a lot of things – some of which worked, some of which didn’t – we tend to be less open about possibilities. A younger group of idealistic young Hippies, just starting out in their teenage delirium, would be less encumbered by all of the negativism that comes from having failed on several occasions and settled into patterns.
Robert: What about your greatest challenges?
Albert: Well, the continuing challenge is to figure out how to marry this hard work, and enterprising vision, to the resources to make a real difference in the world. It seems that no matter how hard you work, you don’t necessarily get what you deserve. Our challenge is to gain access to greater resources, because what we’ve accomplished – and what we can do to help – is very valuable. The world needs a much bigger dose of it. We would love to share it, but we don’t always have access to the right resources.
Robert: What else would you put on your list of fundamentals for community living?
Albert: The most fundamental, essential element, without which any community would fail, boils down to interpersonal skills. The glue that holds any group together is the ability to put aside your own personal ego at times, and to recognize that you have to look out for other people. That may mean trying to help somebody who’s not able to articulate feelings very well, or it might mean shifting work burdens of one kind or another.
Basically, it’s about being able to relate to one another in a close way, understand each other’s aspirations, and assume each other’s goodwill. You have to get beyond your petty little bickerings and find a sense of common purpose. You might disagree sharply or even get into knock-down-drag-out disputes, but that’s part of the pleasure of living in a close knit group. Instead of saying, “I hate that guy, I never want to speak to him again in my life,” you all come out recognizing, “Hey this is great! We really got to argue that one out.”
Interpersonal communication skills are the very essence of community. Without them, any community will fail, and with them, you can do anything.