An Introduction to The Farm


Hello all! I’m posting this because I’m giving serious thought to moving here and I wanted to share it with all of you. I’m going for an introduction retreat in September or October (they have retreats in both) and I’m very excited about it. The Farm has it’s own small businesses, solar school and satellite campuses, blueberry and soy bean farms, housing, central government and more. It’s pretty fantastic. I encourage anyone interested to go to their site and snoop around. 🙂 This article was posted in the Tennessean this past week.

“Aged with years of cannabis and communal living, Stephen Gaskin’s body is worn and his words unhurried. At 78, he walks with slow intention. But the spirit of this tie-dye-clad hippie philosopher — iconic founder of The Farm — remains vibrant. Ask him about the beginning, and his blue eyes come ablaze.

More than four decades ago, Gaskin led a caravan of nonconformists across the country, taking his band of beatnik brethren deep into the Tennessee woods. They traveled from San Francisco and settled ona 1,750-acre spread of land in Summertown in 1971 to form their own society — a spiritual commune called The Farm. For some, it was an adolescent experiment; for others, such as the Gaskins, a lifelong commitment. “We felt like we had to be grandparents before our time,” says Stephen’s wife, Ina May Gaskin, now 73. Today, many of the first-generation Farmies, as they called themselves, are grandparents. Their once-long hair is shorter and grayed. And the community they founded is at a crossroads. Once a home to thousands, The Farm now has only about 140 residents. There are 23 children under age 16, but more than two-thirds of the population is over 50. As the community ages, The Farm’s founders and the generations that have followed must assess the future.

Collectives across the country face similar situations. The Farm formed in an era when people were rebelling against the father-knows-best suburban-America model. They recognized rampant racism and sexism; much was being questioned. People sought positive alternatives and “intentional” communities surged. Since that time, interest in that type of living has ebbed and flowed. Today, there are about 30 groups from the hippie era that have a fairly high public profile, according to Laird Schaub, executive secretary of Fellowship for Intentional Community. The Farm is one of the largest in the country, he said, set apart by its midwifery practice, its international aid mission and the peaceful transition around leadership that in 1983 changed the commune to a cooperative. Still, graying elders wonder who will carry on their legacy. As the country experiences another surge in interest in collective living, the next generation brings its own opinions about how The Farm should progress. Some are children of founders, returned to take care of aging loved ones or start families of their own. Others have come without connection, seeking a place to improve their lives and the world around them. But as residents both new and returned find a place for themselves, they speak of devotion to The Farm’s original vision and making sure it survives and thrives — a synthesis of old and new.

“I see the continuation of the vision of the founders,” says 36-year-old John Schweri, who was born on The Farm and soon plans to begin a family of his own there. “A vision of creating a safe place to live and to work toward helping the world.”

Life on The Farm

On The Farm, residents wake up with the roosters and the woods. Hummingbirds flit from feeder to feeder. Wind chimes at the welcome center add music to the morning. Amid the rolling hilltops in one of the poorest counties in rural Tennessee, The Farm is 30 miles from the nearest hospital, 50 miles from the nearest interstate and 75 miles from the nearest major city — Nashville. It also is 35 miles from the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. The gate at the entrance to The Farm is usually open, but the community is closed. To live on The Farm, an applicant must go through a personal interview and write a letter of introduction and intent, which includes a biographical sketch, method of livelihood and a vision of what he or she hopes to contribute to the community. He or she must have a sponsor — a resident who already lives on The Farm — and must move there for a time before being voted in by the current membership.

Once members are accepted, they agree to share the land and the buildings — all held in a trust by the members. Homes get passed on to family or are returned to The Farm. Residents pay  fees of about $100 a month to cover road maintenance, water service and other utilities. They can pledge money toward other projects, such as preservation of the swimming hole or expansion of the blueberry patch. Freedom allows the residents to determine their fortune. They embrace pioneer practices such as natural homebuilding, gardening and midwifery. Their school teaches courses on radical civics and applied psychology. They run businesses devoted to solar power, soy products and sustainable living. They head Farm-based charities focused on permaculture, preservation, international aid and peace efforts. But one of the most challenging aspects of relocating to The Farm has to do with availability of adequate housing within the community and career opportunities in the vicinity. About a third of the adults in the community work in nearby towns to support themselves and their families. Some work as independent contractors, while others work in local shops and industries. The rest make a living within the community, working industries established during The Farm’s beginnings — the Mail Order Company, the Soy Dairy, the Tempeh Lab and the Book Publishing Company. Schweri works with the books.

He was born on The Farm and adopted by a family there. He spent his youth enjoying its nonconformity. When his parents divorced, he moved away, attending Hillsboro High School in Nashville. It took a couple of years to adjust to life in the city, he says. “There was awareness of a totally different material reality.”

Away from The Farm, he pursued further education, earning a degree in journalism and an MBA in computer information systems, both from Middle Tennessee State University. He went to law school at Nashville School of Law. Then, last July, Schweri moved back, working at the family-owned Book Publishing Company while he prepares to take the bar exam. It’s where he and his wife want to start a family. Twenty people who were born on The Farm — what the founders call “second geners” — live there now. Schweri is a second gener and is among those who have left and returned. His group remembers The Farm, he says, as a “safe community with lots of freedom.” A place where mortgages don’t exist and the cost of living is a fraction of what it is outside the gate. But, Schweri says, “There will be a drop-off in population unless a greater volume starts moving back.”

For that to happen, there needs to be some change. The Farm will go through a huge transition in the next decade, he says, because there isn’t a long-term health care facility on the property. He sees the need for structure to provide for an aging population. There also is a need for more jobs, he says. And he would like to see growth in the “types of organizations crucial to raising awareness and educating people on how to take care of themselves,” he says. And there can be. When The Farm first started, Schweri says, there was friction — Southerners who looked at the hippies as a “bunch of weirdos.” From the beginning, residents cultivated soybeans, harvested local building materials and grew under the wisdom of Stephen Gaskin — their teacher. They pledged not to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, wear leather or eat meat or dairy products. No one carried money. But, Schweri says, when they got out in the community and talked to people, they showed “they are friendly and hardworking. They are honest; they do the right thing. And we want to continue that legacy. We are good people, and we are going to take care of you.”

And continue to take care of their own.

The ‘big change’

An issue this close to the heart can bring a community closer together in examination or serve as divisive, Schaub says. Oftentimes, the success of transitions is how well a community problem solves, he says. Already, The Farm has a history of survival. Farm veterans call it the changeover or the “big change” — the time when poverty and debt wore down the peaceful populace, causing disruption and a movement for a different way of living. In 1983, members took a vote and the communal life lost out to a cooperative. Stephen Gaskin became another regular member of the community.

“We went from one benevolent dictator to 800 … opinions,” says Judith Dodge, a farm founder. “But,” she adds, “that’s democracy.”

A lot of people weren’t happy during that time, she recalls. They didn’t speak up, and then they got really mad. Many left The Farm, unable to produce the money now needed to survive. The Dodges were part of the exodus. They moved to Nashville, where Judith Dodge worked as a physical therapist and her husband, James, as a diesel mechanic. Decades passed. Their daughter, Abigail, moved to New York with her actor husband. But so much of who the elder Dodges were — who they are — remained rooted in rural Tennessee. Recently, Judith, now 67, and James, 66, returned to The Farm to retire. What’s notable, Schaub says, is that there is a farm to which to return. In many cases “where the charismatic leader’s vision is no longer working usually the community collapses or the leader is sent into exile and the community continues in a reconstructive form,” he says.

“The community did this transition, but Stephen did not leave the community, he just stepped down.”

That type of survival bodes well for the future, Schaub says. Now, the founders must figure out what’s the next reasonable transfer of power. Though the older generation may feel the youth can’t ever know enough, leadership must be handed over gradually.

“You are going to have to allow them to do it different and make mistakes,” Schaub says. “You are going to have to let go if you will make the transition.”

A return to nature

The Dodges are reattaching before letting go. On a plot of land looking out toward acres of blueberry patches, they are building a house. A horseshoe from their old Belgian mare hangs on a beam of the great room’s pitched roof — a symbol of fortune.

“I felt lucky to catch the hippie wave,” says Judith Dodge. The movement was peaceful, hopeful and spiritual — a chance to take a deep breath, wake up looking at a meadow and grow your own food, she says. An opportunity to find spirituality and connect with the earth.

It is the same ideals the next generation now seeks.

“We need to welcome our young generation and not be afraid of them,” Ina May Gaskin says, sitting at the Dodges’ kitchen table, a freshly picked green bean making a crisp sound between her teeth.

Yes, Judith Dodge agrees, but those who are coming next also need to respect those who shaped The Farm’s history.

“We worked our tails off to make this happen,” she says.

Will the next generation continue The Farm’s lessons? Its legacy?

“I don’t know,” Judith Dodge says, pausing. “… God bless them.”



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