Communities Magazine, Fall 2017
by Douglas Stevenson
It could be said that there’s a million stories about what happened during The Farm‘s great change in September of 1983, and although the principal components of those stories may overlap, each interpretation is filtered by the individuals and their personal experience. So, while my friend Melvin and I did live on The Farm at the same time, the conclusions or opinions we have are not entirely the same. Because I came to the community a few years after it started and stayed through “The Changeover,” the transition from “The old Farm” and its communal economic structure, to our current, collective economy, and continue to live on The Farm today, I have a different perspective on how and why The Farm survived.
I joined the community in 1973, and was not part of The Farm’s early beginnings in San Francisco or the bus Caravan that left California to find land in Tennessee. This meant that we, my wife and I, and many others like us, had much less of our commitment to the community based on a relationship with Stephen Gaskin. From my observation, often those who were with Stephen from the beginning became more disillusioned, lost faith, and left. Many who stayed in the community after The Changeover were those who came later.
Cult or Cultish?
The first time I saw Stephen on a speaking tour to promote The Farm, he explained that anyone you give your attention and energy and use as a role model, is filling the role of your spiritual teacher. Better to be aware of how you are directing your energy and make the conscious decision to support someone with a positive message. In my mind, I was able to place Stephen in the role of preacher, someone who brought us together, but early on I also saw him as a man with shortcomings and ego. Ultimately, I recognized the community as my true teacher, defined by the people I bumped up against every day that helped me grow and change.
A Hierarchical Power Structure
There is no question that Stephen was the “abbot of the monastery.” This gave him the power to fire people who had risen to roles of responsibility, which frequently seemed more to do with conflicting egos than qualifications or abilities. He could make decisions that affected The Farm’s economy, but was not wise in the ways of money. There is no question that he spent money on promoting himself as the messenger, at times inappropriately. However most of us who have shared this Farm experience were brought to the community through those efforts. Even though these expenditures may have had a negative impact on our bank account, they alone were not responsible for the financial debt that ultimately brought down the communal phase of the community.
Poor Money Management – Young and Inexperienced
In many ways, during the communal period, Stephen played a very “hands-off” role in managing the day to day operations of the community. We could have become more organized, employed better financial management, but overall, we were young and inexperienced. Rebelling from our parent’s generation, we did not have and were not open to advice from elders.
Our disorganization meant that there were many different entities within The Farm that had their own income, checkbook, and relationship with our local bank, such as the farming crew and all of the different business start-ups. This meant they were able to take out bank loans, using the land as collateral, without the oversight of a central government. It wasn’t until the months leading up to The Changeover, that we pulled all of those checkbooks and bank accounts together and created a broad financial overview, revealing the enormity of our debt.
Our dream of supporting the community as vegetable farmers crashed when a blast of arctic air froze and killed a huge crop of green beans we’d planted in Homestead, Florida, south of Miami. This created $100,000 in debt overnight.
The Farm did not buy nor could it have afforded health insurance. We took care of own healthcare, with a clinic, doctors, nurses, a pharmacy, and were able to care for most needs on our own. However, emergency runs dealing with life and death situations eventually built up overdue bills of well over $100,000 to various hospitals.
There are many other examples of our financial mismanagement. A large crew of people operated and maintained an antiquated internal telephone system. Even though we were installing water systems in other countries, many homes on The Farm did not have running water, but had water delivered each day by two guys driving a truck with a large tank on the back, something we called a “temporary emergency expediency,” that went on for years.
Living in the Bubble
When people joined The Farm, they wanted to live and work inside the community, not turn around and get a job in town. The vast majority of the Farm’s population did not generate any income. It relied on about 100 “basic budget boogie boys” that went out every day doing construction work. Unfortunately, the first oil crisis of the early 1980s brought a stop to much of the construction work.
There were a few other sources of income, some guys that ran a trucking company, a couple of doctors working emergency room shifts, but it simply wasn’t enough. There were numerous additional business start-ups, but they weren’t generating sufficient cash flow to make contributions to our communal bank account. At the time of The Changeover, the community was only bringing in around $6,000, but spending $10,000 a week.
Because of the communal economic structure, our businesses did not pay their employees a salary. This meant there was no real accountability, or financial oversight to determine if a business was running efficiently or showed any true potential for making a profit.
Although not expected to generate an income, work crews for various services within the community, such as the clinic and the motor pool, were also tremendously over staffed. The extra hands could not make up the difference for a crew short on adequate tools and supplies.
Everything became radically different after The Changeover.
Becoming Financially Sustainable
With onset of The Changeover, The Farm replaced its Council of Elders, who had no real power, with an actual board of directors. This shift also meant that Stephen Gaskin no longer had the authority to make any financial decisions for the community.
An overview of The Farm’s finances and all its operations was performed, followed by a democratic vote to determine the operating budget for running the community. Each adult member was able to vote for the services they deemed essential and the allocated cost. This included operation of our water system, hiring bookkeepers and accountants, maintenance of roads and public buildings, plus the cost of community services such as our clinic and lifeguards for our swimming area. The total amount was then divided between all of the adult members, establishing the amount each adult was required to pay every month. Altogether, it added up to about $100 per person, plus an additional $35 a month per person to go towards paying down our debt. Within four years, the community was debt free!
All of the businesses in the community (with the exception of The Book Company) became privatized, owned by their principal managers, the people with the skills and knowledge to actually run the business. These companies had to start paying their employees, so that these folks would have an income to cover their personal needs, feed their families, and pay into the operating budget. Right away it became clear which businesses were generating real money.
Those not employed by a community based business were forced to seek employment outside, that is, get jobs. A large number of people went back to school, getting 2-year nursing degrees at a local community college. Over time several of the community’s business start-ups became solid and provided employment. Once unfinished, overcrowded houses with 30-40 people became beautiful single-family homes.
The Farm survived because the vision of intentional community was much greater than the cult of celebrity, including a hippie spiritual teacher. The teachings that have held the community together really did not come from Stephen, but were broader truths, the fundamentals of hippie culture:
- Peace and nonviolence
- Respect for nature, understanding our role as stewards of the land
- A responsibility to treat each other with respect, and to honor each person’s path
The journey is not over. The community is in a new period of transition, from the original founding generation to the next. Survival is never a given, but comes from perseverance and the result of great effort. May the members of the Future Farm carry with them the wisdom of what we have learned from the past, and the vision to keep the spirit of community high and vibrant!