High Times, 1995: Out To Save The World: Life on The Farm
Michael I. Niman – High Times | 2/1/1995
Nestled in the woodlands of south central Tennessee’s moonshine district, just an hour and a half south of Opryland and three hours east of Graceland, lies The Farm, an intentional community of peaceful warriors “out to save the world.” Sociologists call it an “intentional community”; the mainstream press anachronizes it as a “hippie commune.” Residents, however, just call it “home.”
They settled here in 1971. Transplants from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury acid scene, they arrived in a caravan of 50 or so brightly painted live-in school buses. They were a bunch of city kids planning to grow their own food, get high, groove on the land and teach the world how to live in peace. The Farm, according to their one-time spiritual mentor, Stephen Gaskin, was going to be a demonstration project for a sustainable future a nonviolent ecofriendly cooperative community of pioneers ushering in a new age.
By the early 1980s, when most other ’60s-era communal experiments were fading, its population swelled to almost 1,500 people. They not only farmed portions of their 1,700-acre Tennessee home but had satellite communities and farms in Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin, California, New York, Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia, Canada and Ireland. They were running relief operations in Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, Bangladesh and the South Bronx with a worldwide operation in constant communication with Tennessee via ham television and radio.
They invented Ice Bean, ran a school, pioneered vegan cookery and started a publishing company, an electronics firm, a tofu plant and a construction business. Their midwives earned worldwide recognition as leaders in the midwifery revival, and the respect of the local medical establishment for their excellent birthing record.
While much of this activity still continues today, The Farm is deceptively quiet. Its population has stabilized at approximately 250 full-time residents. On a warm September night I wandered over to one of their basketball courts. The last of the summer’s mosquitoes swarmed around two blinking fluorescent pole lights, rusted and in need of paint. A group of teenagers, some wearing tie-dyes, shot hoops. A few others sat around, talking, laughing and drinking fruit-juice spritzers.
It was our first night on The Farm. Gabe, the HIGH TIMES photographer who I traveled to Tennessee with, looked over at me, “Wa’s up? Everything here is so normal.” I was confused. Why did HIGH TIMES roust me from my home and fly me to Tennessee? Where’s the story?
But then I looked again. It was normal. And it worked. That’s what set it apart from America. People were shooting hoops, not smack, and not each other.
Of course, as the days went by, the veneer faded, exposing a youth rebellion, power struggles and political infighting. The Farm, however, is somewhat unique in its marriage of hip countercultural values and a good ol’ rural Tennessee work ethic. Its evolution was influenced by two dominant personalities: Stephen Gaskin and Homer Sanders.
Gaskin was a well-known San Francisco “acid guru.” His “Monday Night Class,” which originated as a course at San Francisco State’s experimental college, evolved into a sort of weekly be-in at the Family Dog rock hall, regularly drawing thousands. The last Monday Night Class in California was held February 10, 1971. The caravan departed the next day.
Homer Sanders was a neighbor in Summertown. He first arrived, shotgun in hand, intent on driving the hippies out. After talking with Gaskin, however, he changed his mind and turned his gun on another neighbor who was giving The Farm folks a hard time. only to be dissuaded by Gaskin from using violence. Soon thereafter, he taught his new hippie friends how to make cane molasses and mill lumber. Farm residents to this day include Homer Sanders in their stories about “the old days.”
Despite the friendship of Sanders and other neighbors, The Farm still had a rough start. Three months after arriving in Summertown, they were busted for growing marijuana.
Resident Farm historian Michael Traugot describes the early Farm as a “grass church.” Farm folks “depended upon marijuana for insight, for ceremonial value and to enhance lovemaking.” They shunned, however, commerce in pot. Traugot explains that since pot was a “sacrament and an aid to consciousness, one absorbed some of the karma of those who produced and distributed.”
“The cleanest form of pot, most suitable for the kind of loving consciousness and clear mind” that Farm folks were seeking, he adds, “was pot lovingly grown, over which no money changed hands.” With their reverence for pot and their aversion to buying, growing seemed to be the only choice. They were not, however, subtle. “Not only did they plant it,” said Gaskin, “but they sat nude and played flute to it, and got caught by people going by doing that, until they just aroused the curiosity of the neighbors.”
The bust was cordial. In fact, Gaskin and the sheriff later went on to become close friends. The congeniality of the police, however, didn’t alter the fact that they were enforcing what The Farm saw as an unjust law. Rather than proclaim ignorance of the pot. Gaskin took full responsibility. With The Farm’s legal defense crew, he spent three years fighting the case in court, claiming that marijuana prohibition violated their religious freedom rights. The case was brought to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. Gaskin spent a year in jail.
The 1971 pot bust was The Farm’s last. Gaskin, who to this day sees pot as “the green herb of understanding that lets people who don t speak the same language laugh at the same jokes,” also saw the potential for use of the pot laws to destroy The Farm. Soon after the bust, The Farm adopted “a strict rule” to never let a cannabis plant grow anywhere on their land. The strategy paid off. On July 11, 1980, a battalion of state police, including two helicopters, some 50 police cars, dogs and over 100 officers raided The Farm in the dark of night. Accompanied by television crews from three Nashville stations, they converged from all directions�on a field of ragweed. As it turned out, an overzealous helicopter pilot on a routine dope-spotting run mistook the overgrown watermelon field, with its neat rows of ragweed that had grown up between the melons, for hemp.
A humiliated police officer told TV reporters that the hippies must have been tipped off, pulled up all traces of cannabis, and quickly planted the six-foot ragweed plants. The judge who issued the warrant, giving police the right to search all of the 100 or so homes on The Farm for balloons and spoons among other “paraphernalia,” apologized.
For The Farm, the failure of the only dope raid since 1971 was a triumph. To a person, everyone respected the vow not to grow weed. The Farm was left in peace. It was a bittersweet victory, however; to save their land and their homes, Farm residents gave up cultivating their sacred herb. Albert Bates, The Farm’s attorney, points out that The Farm has outlasted both a Tennessee governor and sheriff who have been locked up behind bars during its tenure. The Farm’s triumph over the raid is now celebrated every July 11th with a Ragweed Day Festival.
Despite surviving the raid, The Farm’s future was cloudy in the early 1980s. They lost money during the farm crisis, leaving them over a million dollars in debt, despite hard work and excellent crops. Their other cash cow, the construction company, was all but idle due to the recession. The Farm was down for the count, ironically, not because their experimental collectivism failed, but because of failures within the greater capitalist economy. Faced with losing their land, in 1983 The Farm abruptly changed from a communal to a privatized economy. In order to raise money to pay off the debt, collective businesses were sold and residents were charged fixed membership fees, a sort of regressive tax, to remain on their land. Many who worked on collective Farm projects such as road maintenance suddenly found themselves facing expenses but not having an income. The Farm motor pool was privatized, leaving many residents without transportation to go out and find work.
Many were unprepared to cope with the rapid changes. In 1983 alone, approximately 700 people left The Farm. By the late 1980s, less than 300 remained on the land. The Farm’s debt, however, was paid off. Today’s Farm has wandered considerably from its egalitarian roots. A class schism has developed. Some people drive new Volvos or Toyota pick-ups: others bike, hitch or walk. Ramshackle houses, originally built up from tent platforms and now beginning to compost back into the ground, stand just up the road from new state-of-the-art homes. Since The Farm’s businesses have been privatized, there are now entrepreneurs and workers. Still, they work side by side, and for the time being, the workers have no complaints about pay or treatment.
Farm history as it’s told today, no matter who the narrator, is divided into two eras� before “the changes” and after. “Before” is a nostalgic amalgam of romanticized chaos. idealism, power and triumph. “After” is a story of pragmatism, survival and balance sheets, peppered with a litany of business successes. Melding the stories together creates a picture of a metamorphosis from hippie commune to a hip land trust and small business incubator. Before the changes, as many as 50 people inhabited a single building. Today each family has its own home. Before. everyone’s property and money was pooled together in a common pot clothing and food at the community store was “free.” Medical care and schooling were also free. Now people have bank accounts and charge cards�the store is privately owned and sells Pepsi along with tie-dyes and vegan foods. The Farm school now charges tuition, so most Farm children go to public school in nearby towns.
As I passed a collapsing building, I asked one of The Farm’s teenage residents what it used to be. “The communal laundromat,” he answered. I asked him where folks do their laundry now. Laughing, he replied, “they all have their own washers and dryers…. They got nice cars too, and color televisions.”
Private washing machines and cars are not normally seen as trimmings of tile rich and famous. For The Farm’s younger generation, it’s still weird. Brought up in the heyday of collectivism, many still cling to the idealism their parents have lost. They remember their friends who moved away. One ex-Farm resident, now a Nashville psychologist, sees the new generation, who grew up together in a “tribal’ environment, as one day leading The Farm back to communitarianism.
Many of the young Farm folk, however. are not sticking around. There is a haunting absence of people between 18 and 35. Rebellion is in the air. The few who remain complain that hey are often not respected or accepted as full voting members. Still referred to on The Farm as “our kids” even after they are well into their 20s, many have moved on to start lives of their own. Many have settled in the San Francisco area, where two decades ago Stephen Gaskin’s Monday Night Classes so captivated their parents.
There are many reasons for the lack of people in their 20s at The Farm. Foremost, as Carol Nelson, chair of The Farm’s Foundation points out, is simple math. Few of The Farm’s founders arrived with families. Most had children during The Farm’s ‘ baby boom” in the early ’70s. Hence there just plain aren’t many offspring older than 23.
Many Farm children leave because they aren’t satisfied with rural Southern life. They want to taste some of the adventure their parents had at their age when they turned on to acid and roamed the continent. Others trained at The Farm’s high-tech businesses, find themselves very employable and are slipping into middle-class lives. It was common for Farm parents, outfitted in bright tie-dyes, to beam with pride as they told me of their children landing jobs as broadcast executives and the like.
If The Farm fails to hold on to its younger generation what began as a seed for a brave new communal age will end as a retirement center for aging visionaries. The Farm’s ideals, however, will not die, but will spread as its children fan out over the continent.
Even with its diminished numbers, The Farm is still a hotbed of activity. Virtually everyone there has a project they’re devoted to. Most people have several. When they began the caravan in 1971, the lead bus, an old Scenicruiser, had posted as its destination: Out To Save The World.” That slogan still holds today. All Farm projects, even the commercial ones, are geared towards saving the planet. Among the more visible groups on The Farm is the midwives. Spurred by the success of Ina May Gaskin’s book, Spiritual Midwifery, which has sold over 500,000 copies in six languages.
The Farm’s midwives are known around the world. In the United States, they are at the forefront of a movement to end legal prohibition of midwifery, still in effect in most states. For The Farm’s midwives, the right to practice midwifery is essential for a community to survive. “There is something elemental about birth and death,” Ina May explains to me over tea. “When you are able to return control of these processes to communities and take it out of institutions, what is learned in the process nourishes life in a lot of ways that are generally too subtle for most people to see.”
Giving birth on The Farm is a mystical experience. It is also, according to Farm midwife Joanne Santana, “empowering.” The midwife, Santana explains, doesn’t claim to “deliver” the baby, but instead “attends” the birth and assists the mother, who really delivers the baby. At The Farm, midwife and mother are partners with mutual respect. Instead of drugs, they use the power of “trust and friendship.” Ina May recalls how she, like Santana, had her first baby in a hospital: “We both had babies in the same brutal fashion. We were strapped down. You weren’t prepared for that. It was like being in a nightmare torture scene. Then you are separated from your baby for a long time. And you’re cut, being told that it would keep you from being injured. Your baby’s head is clamped with forceps, and you are told that’s in order that you won’t crunch the baby’s head.”
Women opt for hospital births, according to Ina May, because of acculturation: “Depending on your cultural background, you either end up approaching childbirth with respect and a sense of adventure, or you are in dread and you are absolutely frightened and sure that it can’t happen without some sort of stupendous miraculous help and that’s what we’re told can happen in the hospital. And that’s why so many people are not only willing, but happy to have a cesarean because they’re so afraid of the natural process. They think It will be worse than abdominal surgery.”
The Farm midwives stress that women’s bodies do, in fact, work. Most cesareans are not necessary. Farm midwives delivered 183 babies before their first cesarean. With almost 2,000 births under their belt now, their cesarean rate is only 1.7%. This compares to a national rate of over 24%. Farm midwives are also on the cutting edge of midwifery research. One technique they learned from Mayan midwives in Guatemala, for instance, has been written up in medical journals and is now incorporated into family physician training. The technique, for delivering breech presentations or babies with shoulders stuck behind the pelvic bone simply involves rolling and twisting the mother. The baby then “pops right out.”
Mainstream doctors, on the other hand, opt for a cesarean in such cases. In a study of 59 such cases, two babies died and four had permanent neurological damage, three women had their pubic bones cut and two had emergency hysterectomies, and five babies ended up with arms that will never work. The Farm midwives, by contrast, delivered 40 babies using the Mayan technique without a single complication. The Maya claim they learned the procedure from God.
Farm midwives combine what the Maya learned from God with what they learned from LSD. Key to the acid connection, they explain, is oxytocin, a near cousin to LSD that is naturally released by a woman’s body during birth. LSD, incidentally, was discovered by chemist Albert Hofmann as he tried to synthesize oxytocin.
Ina May recalls giving birth to her first child in the hospital. When she first entered labor, it was a trip-like experience. The trip faded, however, as soon as doctors drugged her. Two years later, while on her third acid trip, she realized the similarity of the experiences. Today, Farm midwives counsel a rough labor much the same way they would a bad trip. “Stay calm, breathe deep, don’t focus on complaining.”
Expectant parents from around the country venture to The Farm to give birth. They often spend the last three to six weeks of pregnancy on The Farm, staying in guest houses while working with the midwives. The cost for such a blissful birth is only a fraction of the cost of a hospital delivery.
The Farm is also known for its monumental contribution to meat and dairy-free vegan cuisine. It’s probably a safe bet to say it has more cookbook authors per capita than any other community in the country. We feasted at Louise Hagler’s home, recently designed and built around an amphitheater of a kitchen. Hagler, the author of three cookbooks, is currently working on a low-fat vegan cookbook. The kitchen, she explained, will soon be a set for vegan cooking videos. We also chowed down at Barb and Neil Bloomfield’s home. Their house, former residence to 10 families, is now open to the public as a bed-and-breakfast. Barb is the author of Fabulous Beans.
The cookbooks are printed by The Book Publishing Company, the only remaining business that is wholly and collectively owned by The Farm Foundation. While focusing primarily on vegetarianism, holistic health, Native American authors, midwifery and women’s health, they also publish The World of CB Radio, a million-plus best seller. Vice President Al Gore, himself a Tennessee homeboy, wrote the foreword to one of their newer books, Albert Bates’ Climate in Crisis.
The Farm also has a mail order book business that includes titles by Farm authors. Called The Mail Order Catalog, it contains 217 vegetarian cookbooks and 47 vegetarian nutrition and philosophy books.
Other resident businesses include The Soy Dairy, a commercial producer of tofu, tempeh and soy milk; Total Video, a production studio responsible for many of the ads seen on local television in south central Tennessee; The Mushroompeople, selling supplies to grow shiitake; The Dye Works, Farm artist John Ibur’s tie-dye shop; the Summertown Food Company; The Farm Veggie Deli and The Farm Excavation Company, to name but a few.
Many Farm businesses are integrated into the local economy. The Farm Building Company has framed over 400 houses and built a K-Mart, as well as landscaping Opryland. “Not bad for a bunch of hippies,” one Farm resident joked. The Farm’s electronics company contracts with the federal government to build radiation detectors for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at nuke plants. Ironically, only 10 years earlier, FEMA, under the direction of Ed Meese and Ronald Reagan, had targeted Farm residents for a mass roundup and detention in the event of a US invasion of Central America.
It wasn’t The Farm’s political activity (they’re Democrats) that caught the Reagan administration’s paranoid eye, but international humanitarian work carried out through its relief organization, Plenty. Gaskin, forever laboring to find new projects to “save the world.” dreamed up Plenty in 1974.
The idea was simple. Farm residents learned all sorts of skills in erecting The Farm. With a few tools, they could be dispatched to trouble spots around the globe. In 1976, a Plenty crew started planning a trip to Guatemala after Farm ham radio operators monitored distress calls from a devastating earthquake. In Guatemala, Plenty joined forces with the Canadian International Development Agency. The Canadians supplied materials for Plenty volunteers coordinating construction of 1,200 earthquake-resistant homes near the quake’s epicenter. They used their electronics skills to build a native-language radio station and used their engineering skills to build water systems for remote Maya villages.
In an effort to combat malnutrition in Guatemala, Plenty set up a demonstration soy dairy which is still in operation. After their success in Guatemala, they expanded the soy program, teaching soy dairy skills and sustainable agriculture in Jamaica, Belize, Dominica, Liberia, Lesotho, Mexico and Nicaragua. They also have organized health-care programs and cottage industries in these countries. In the USA, they installed Israeli-style drip irrigation systems on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota and ran an ambulance service in the South Bronx. Other Farm projects include The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program of Nashville; The EcoVillage Training Center, now setting up sustainable eco-communities in Russia; The Natural Rights Center, a civil-rights research and advocacy organization; The Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology; and Kids to the Country, a program to bring inner-city children to The Farm.
Stephen Gaskin’s new project is Rocinante. On 100 acres adjoining The Farm, it will be a retirement community where “elderly people can spend their last years surrounded by woods, wildlife and people who care for them.” Plans also call for a birthing center. Rocinante will offer a “sacred space” for both birth and death.
There is still a dark side to life in Summertown. Lumber companies are currently buying up most of the woodlands surrounding The Farm, clear-cutting mature oak forests and sending them to chip mills to be reduced to paper pulp, a product that could more sensibly be made from hemp fiber. While they were out saving the world, their own neighborhood was being destroyed. Still hopeful, however, Farm residents, neighbors and friends have organized yet another project: a land trust. They are now attempting to buy and preserve some of the last remaining forests that surround The Farm. In all, there are currently over 60 corporations, business partnerships, nonprofit organizations and assorted projects associated with The Farm.
The Farm is one of the ultimate American odysseys. From the Family Dog to Opryland; from acid to Ice Bean. What a long strange trip it’s been.