A Trip Back to The Farm
Lisa Selin Davis | 4/18/2007
It was, at its peak, the largest and most famous commune in America — a place where some 1,200 self-described hippies took a vow of poverty, kept house in school buses, and pledged to save the world. When I looked it up a few months ago, I learned that The Farm not only still existed, it seemed to be thriving. Back-to-the-landers had transitioned seamlessly into the digital age. Their website (thefarm.org) abounded with blogs, an ever-increasing tally of the cost of the Iraq War, sound files of poetry readings and a 25 percent discount on holiday orders of the Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. The Farm had grown up, shifting from a zero-accumulation commune to a veritable industrial park of creative capitalism, not to mention a popular tourist destination. For me — a brown-rice baby, the daughter of hippies — The Farm represented the ultimate in counterculture living. Last fall, I visited The Farm for a few days, hoping to learn not just what it had become, but what might become of it.
The gate to The Farm — among 1,750 acres of red and white oaks, hickories and dogwoods in Summertown, Tennessee, an hour and a half southwest of Nashville — is tucked away on a tiny paved street, past miles of roadside churches and prefab houses. The closest business, the Summertown Store, rents DVDs and sells bait, tackle and five varieties of pork rinds. I pulled past the Welcome Center (which sells beaded jewelry and Farm history books), down their long driveway and felt…well, a mild sense of disappointment.
Where was the community? The Farm’s billowing fields of maidenhair ferns and goldenrod were largely uninhabited. Tourist season was over, the guest inn (called You’re Inn) closed, and the Eco-Village Training Center dormant. Their own FM station, 88.3 WUTZ, quietly broadcast Democracy Now and The Thom Hartmann Show. I saw a few modular buildings, rusty school buses and modest houses nestled in the woods. Deer leaped between the trees, certain of their safety here during hunting season.
There’s not a lot of communal space at The Farm, and there’s no longer any farming, save for a half-acre of blueberries. A wooden gazebo called Head of the Roads perches at the intersection of their main thoroughfares: First, Second and Third roads. Nearby is the motor pool — largely a collection of rusty Volvos tended by a mechanic with long hair and a beard, the unofficial style of Farm men. Beyond that sits the plum-colored Farm Store, selling tie-dyes and tofu, and about a mile away are The Farm School and the community center, where Farmies who wish to share a communal dinner gather once a week.
“There’s not a lot of togetherness,” says Peter Kindfeld, The Farm School’s principal. “But there’s a big feeling of togetherness.”
The pace of life slows considerably here; interviews that normally take half an hour lingered to two, which may be why I didn’t see the bustling community I’d imagined: People are inside, talking. Douglas Stevenson, The Farm’s unofficial spokesperson, suggested I come during the summer, to see a Farm day in action. “The blueberries are a major social scene,” he told me. But here I was in late fall, when The Farm slipped into hibernation.
The Farm’s original settlers were devotees of Stephen Gaskin, an English professor who taught at San Francisco State University in the ’60s. His infamous Monday Night Class — a primer on “God, the universe, life, and truth” — became a countercultural phenomenon, attracting as many as 1,000 attendees of all ages every week.
In 1969, a group of Methodist ministers invited Gaskin to speak at churches across the country; a year later, Monday Night Class hit the road. Gaskin and 300 followers, from students to businessmen, zigzagged across 7,000 miles in seven months, traveling in a caravan of dilapidated school buses to deliver their message of hippie-tinged moral rectitude — a sort of Protestant work ethic applied to Timothy Leary.
When the trip was over, the Gaskinites craved a place where they could live out their values permanently. “It seemed like a good idea to get in the backwoods and do our own thing,” says Gaskin. They settled on Tennessee because “land was cheap and the people were friendly,” says Stevenson. “California was already eaten up by building codes, and communes had been bulldozed. Plus, anything anyone said in California was dismissed: ‘Oh, it’s just the crazy hippies.’ ” That they could be taken more seriously in another part of the country was key, because unlike many communes, which turned inward and sought refuge from the larger world, Farmies focused outward. (The sign on their Greyhound bus read: gotta save the world.)
So they pooled their money, purchased 1,000 acres of land, and parked those buses to live the message they’d spent more than half a year promoting.
Outsiders gave them a nickname: “The Technicolor Amish.”
From the beginning, The Farm was as much about vocation as it was about vision, both as a matter of convenience and an expression of can-do spirit. When they set out in those buses, “kids suddenly had to learn auto mechanics. It was part of the challenge to keep the caravan on the road,” says Stevenson, himself a high-school dropout (he eventually earned his diploma) who showed up on The Farm in 1973.
After buying the Tennessee land, the Farmies cobbled together their own shelter — first modified buses, then Army surplus tents, and, later, a few insulated homes — and began making decisions by consensus, with Gaskin presiding over group meetings. Though many aspects of life on The Farm resembled those at other communes at the time (vegetarianism, homegrown food, shared meals), “our businesses all happened in response to things happening in the world,” says Gaskin.
Those businesses and skills were, not surprisingly, based on the community’s self-sufficiency. Farmies became authorities in satellite communications by using ham radio to stay in contact with the dozen or so sister communities that sprang up from Florida to Colorado. Babies had been born during the 1970 caravan, so an expertise in midwifery developed. Gaskin’s wife Ina May, author of Spiritual Midwifery, among many other books, became one of the country’s foremost authorities on the subject. In 1978, Farmies created The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, which introduced many Americans to meatless cuisine; out of that effort, The Book Publishing Company grew. They cultivated soybean crops, popularized tofu and, some say, invented soy ice cream, resulting in the formation of FarmSoy Dairy. Revenues from all these entrepreneurial efforts were, of course, shared.
For years, Farmies managed to remain engaged in the larger world while living apart from it. On the ham radio one night in 1976, they heard a distress call from Guatemala, where an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale had hit, killing some 22,000 people. The Farm’s nonprofit, Plenty International, sent a group to bring much-needed construction supplies to poor (and poorly treated) Mayans. In the late ’70s, as the Cold War fomented the No Nukes movement, Farmies formed SE International, a company that manufactured personal monitoring devices similar to Geiger counters. They brought soy farming to Belize, St. Lucia and South Africa, and even set up an ambulance service in the South Bronx, because, Stevenson says, “We found we didn’t have to go outside the country to get to the Third World.”
And so they did. After a series of protracted and painful group meetings came “the changeover,” as their transition from commune to cooperative came to be known. It resulted in a massive exodus and purging that eventually shrunk the adult population to 100, plus 150 kids, in 1983. Now that those kids have mostly grown and gone, the population has settled around 200 people, a third of them under 40. The Farm School became a private entity; families pay $2,500 in tuition per child each year. The satellite communities in other states folded or separated. “We pulled everything back to Tennessee,” says Stevenson. “The land is the bond.”
“There was a several-year shakedown,” says Gaskin, who was dethroned in the changeover, but continues to live and work at The Farm. “I don’t think I was the only one who grieved for about a year.” However much he misses it, though, “at the same time, I don’t have to run it.”
These days, The Farm sort of runs itself. It’s set up like a small town, where you know and approve of every single one of your neighbors. The land, buildings, and homes are now held by a trust, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation. A board of directors oversees operations, and the membership committee (those serving are elected to two-year terms) takes care of approving new Farmies. Residents pay $100 to $150 per month for shared expenses, including the water system and the Welcome Center. And the businesses, save for The Book Publishing Company, are now individually owned; the money you make from your business, even if it’s on Farm property, is yours.
It’s not that Farmies are now capitalists — they’re pragmatists. It’s the rural South, the edge of Appalachia, and jobs are hard to come by. So you can’t live at The Farm unless you can find a way to sustain yourself there, and one way to do that is through tourism. Hundreds of visitors come each year (tourists from Prince Edward Island to Arizona have signed the Welcome Center guest book), so some Farmies rent out rooms in their homes. For $35 a night, I snagged a comfortable bed and vegetarian meals from longtime Farmies Pat and Vickie Montagne. Vickie, who came to The Farm at 21 to have her first child with the midwives in 1977, now runs the Welcome Center; Pat works as a handyman.
“I already had a Porsche before I got here,” says Robert Moore, a refugee from the insurance business, who lives in a house that was vacated by a couple who left The Farm after the changeover. Moore works part time at The Mail Order Catalog and has held various positions at other Farm businesses during his 35-year tenure. I asked him what he thought his former insurance colleagues were doing. “They probably have group medical and their houses are paid off,” he says. “They probably have a very good life, a middle class life.” He says this with not one trace of envy, but with no disdain either.
The other issue, which is an odd one since the community hopes to add another 150 or so members: It’s not very easy to join. “You have to show a whole lot of dedication to get in,” says Kindfeld, the school principal. Interested parties are encouraged to attend a Farm Experience Weekend, where they participate in communal dinners and nature walks, and take workshops on midwifery, green building, or other Farm initiatives. After a few visits, they can become provisional members, and, once approved, they can build houses, as long as the sites are okayed by neighbors and the land-use committee. The Farmies’ attitude is one of “We’re looking for a few good men” — people with similar values who embrace their vision of work and community. It is, for all intents and purposes, an exclusive, gated community — even if the gate remains open most of the time.
Kindfeld relocated to The Farm three years ago with his wife and two school-age children, having dreamed of living on a commune and working at an alternative school. He proudly calls The Farm “the land of aging hippies.” “There are 300 million Americans living essentially the same lives,” he says. “And there are 500 or 600 doing something really different.”
Story by Lisa Selin Davis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.