by Wanda Newell, D-U staff writer
How many of you visited The Farm in Summertown during the 1970s? I did, twice, with my dad and stepmother and once with my friend whose sister was living there. Curious about what may have changed since then, I asked my friend Edith to help me find out.
There is a massive amount of published literature- brochures, newspaper articles and books- lot of it piled high on my desk; But I learned the most from my recent tour given by Douglas Stevenson, volunteer public relations director for The Farm. Thanks to him for his time and patience in helping me get the facts right.
In his book,- “The Farm Then and New, A Model for Sustainable Living,” Farm member Douglas Stevenson writes about how ﬁrst 200-300 young people traveled in buses, vans, cars, and trucks across the country on a speaking tour.
“The Caravan came to rest in Tennessee and the number of tasks and roles and to be filled multiplied a hundredfold. Although Stephen was generally regarded as the primary person in charge, there was plenty of room for others to exert their influence and establish positions of power within the informal hierarchy.
Steven was Stephen Gaskin, a teacher and host of discussions at San Francisco State University. He distinguished himself as a spiritual teacher and his followers grew in number. Those who regard themselves as students of Stephen shared his vision and felt his spiritual philosophy and teaching carried a ring of truth.
Stephen led the group from California in search of land to establish a community. In 1971, when it was established, The Farm Community, Stevenson writes,”had the purest of intentions, that all who came would be cared for, fed, clothed, healed and provided shelter. The adult population grew to 1200. There were 700 children in The Farm School.
My perception of The Farm in the 70s was one of an easy life. Stevenson altered that view. “We were workaholics, working 12 hours a day, which helped keep the community smaller people not interested in working didn’t stay around very long. Work was divided into crews, the farm crew, the clinic group, the carpenters, motor pool, laundry crew, a neighbor relations committee, to name just a few. “The locals ‘ helped them flourish. Midwives worked under the supervision of area doctors. Farmers and the Amish taught the newcomers how to grow. crops. The members were eager to learn and prove themselves.
In 1974, the non-profit Plenty International, a relief and development organization, was formed, connecting members and providing them with purpose. Volunteers did great work overseas, but the community’s infrastructure was too underdeveloped for the number of people that it was trying to support. Farm members were living in substandard conditions and, over time, an effort to survive while fulﬁlling their humanitarian missions, they went deep into debt.
Douglas explained how life was back then. “20-30 people lived together. We had all signed a vow of poverty committed to a life of service for the world but our intention was to live lighter on the earth, not to struggle for basic necessities. A lot of funds were committed to our non-proﬁt projects, and therefore we struggled to survive ourselves.” It was unclear if The Farm Could survive.
Deep in debt and with bank charges in excess of 20%, it looked as if The Farm would fall into bankruptcy. Then, the total restructuring in 1983 commonly called, “The Changeover,” transformed the community into a functioning democracy.
Stevenson explained the situation for ABC News in 2012, “Up to then no one held personal money. No one was responsible for their own support. The commune went $400,000 into debt, financial crisis loomed, tensions rose and a mass exodus followed.” He added, “A lot has changed. We still hold the land collectively. All of the houses and community buildings we own collectively. But everyone is now responsible for their own support.”
A board of directors was established and members became stakeholders.
It took 12 years for The Farm to get back on their feet. In addition to paying off the debt, careers were established; the infrastructure was upgraded. Rules were changed.
Stevenson said, “Part of the change was not just economic, but relaxing of the rules to give people more freedom. The only rule rule now is to pay your bills.”
The weapons restriction remains and no animals for slaughter are allowed on the prime property, but before the change you change over rules were stricter: no caffeine, no alcohol, no makeup, you couldn’t cut your hair.
“We decided we didn’t need so many rules; We were creating rules about not having rules,” Stevenson explains.
To his credit, charismatic leader Stephen Gaskin didn’t leave after The Changeover occurred. He stayed on The Farm until his death in 2014. I think this speaks volumes for his dedication and vision.
And New York Times article reporting his death credited members entrepreneurial spirit and outreach for The Farm’s continued success. But I think it has a lot to do with the early leadership too.
Today, The Farm’s future is looking bright. The members live in The Farm Community and pursue a path that includes 10 core beliefs and agreements. These beliefs address subjects such as child rearing, honest relationships, non violence, ecologically sound and humane lifestyles respect for the earth. My favorite: We believe that inner peace is the foundation for world peace. I like that sentiment a lot.
Members pay a monthly fee for road maintenance, water, and other services. With a population of 175, which includes 25 children, the group is growing steadily.
Some of the so-called “Second Generation,” children who were born on The Farm, as well as other young people who share the values of the community, are establishing homes to raise families of their own.
Some of those who left in the 80s are coming back as retirees. Like the school teacher who recently moved back to The Farm. There is a regular flow of visitors, and Douglas frequently meets with reporters to help get the word out, using The Farm as an example, demonstrating that there are ways to live in cooperation with each other and with nature. Vicky at the Welcome Center, Louise at The Farm Store, teachers in the school and other share their enthusiasm for “intentional living” where everyone can play a small part in making something big happen. It appears that everyone does their part to make the community a success.
Farm members operate a wide variety of businesses. SE International, which produces Geiger counters for use worldwide, is the most successful, with the Book Publishing Company a close second.
Midwifery is the third most successful operation, with 6 midwives available for mothers who travel here from across the United States. The nine nonprofits provide a direct way for them to express their ideals. Some are run by volunteers and others have part time and full time paid staff. All rely on the generous support of grassroots donors to carry out their missions.
Kids To The Country is a project that brings at risk and urban kids to The Farm to enjoy nature in the study peaceful education. The Swan Conservation Trust is a Land Trust dedicated to preserving and restoring mass of hardwood forest, wildlife habitat, biodiversity and water quality in the region.
Stevenson said, “Our non profits are very much the core value of the community, that only something that people are engaged in, but something that supports the people. Think Globally, Act Locally – The Swan Trust is an exec silent example of this.”
I was impressed by what I saw and read. While on the tour Douglas said to me, “40 years later and we are still a mystery.” True.
For me, The Farm is less of a mystery. I plan to stay involved with them and learn more.