(Archive - Week of February 19, 2005)

It was simply known as -
The Farm

The Farm in Summertown, Tenn. faces an uncertain communal future

Martin Burkey, staff writer for the Decatur Daily, Decatur, Ala. was the author of this piece in December 2003. The Farm is located only a few miles from my birthplace. I visited The Farm a couple time during the '70s and was shown utmost respect by all members on The Farm.

The Farm was an intentional, spiritual hippy community founded in 1971, based on the principles of nonviolence and respect for the earth. This is part of what life on The Farm was like in its heyday:

Born in 1971, The Farm is facing critical decisions about its future, according to research by Dr. Andrew Dunar, chairman of UAH's History Department.

Started with the ideal of becoming a self-supporting community, The Farm was established in central Tennessee during the height of the '60s movement by about 250 people from the San Francisco Bay area. They sought cultural alternatives to things they saw as wrong in society. They wanted to become self-sufficient and independent of society as a whole, and believed establishing a large farming operation was one way to do that.

Settling near Summertown, Tenn., the group bought land and established a community based largely on producing agricultural products. The commune's residents eschewed the free enterprise system, sharing in the workload and the income.

The Farm had as many as 1,500 residents by the late 1970s. By 1983, however, the farming operation was in trouble and changes were made. The Farm's residents still hold the land in common, but the rest of the community's life was privatized. Residents no longer pool their incomes, but each resident regularly contributes "dues." The Farm also established a book publishing company and other ventures to generate income.

Today, The Farm's residents face some crucial decisions, says Dunar. "Those who were born on The Farm in the 1970s are young adults today. There aren't many jobs in the vicinity, so many of the younger people are leaving. It is becoming an aging community and they face concerns about their retirements."

The Farm seems awfully quiet these days considering its colorful and storied history as one of the country's most famous and long-running hippie communes here in the unlikeliest of places.

On a recent Thursday morning - where once flower children sprouted like daisies, the FBI investigated several times, the KKK bombed and hundred-officer pot raids made news - Barbara Cheney is intently peering at circuit boards under a magnifier.

Phil Schweitzer is editing a high school musical video. Sharon Wells is coaxing a pair of teenagers to discuss their literature homework. Otis Maly is practicing alone on a keyboard with dreams of stardom. A van load of teenagers from Nashville piles off to fight invasive wisteria as a class project. All very un-hippielike at first glance.

No flower children, no naked, doped-up hippies, not a single love-in or peace sign in sight. No marijuana smoke, patchouli or sitar music in the air. The only tie-dyed T-shirts in sight are for sale at the community store. Hair for the most part seems shorter, thinner and grayer. Although there's an official gate, it failed, perhaps successfully, to keep the hippies in or the rest of the world out.

In 1971, about 300 hippies left the epicenter of the youth movement in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and caravanned across country in 60 brightly painted school buses. A sign on one bus said "Out to change the world." They wanted to find a place to start a self-sufficient utopian community.

'Back to the country'

Back then, "back to the country" was cool. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was getting "back to the garden." A magazine created in the late 1960s to preserve the traditional folk culture of Southern Appalachia evolved into the best-selling Foxfire books with histories and how-tos on hog dressing, log cabin building, blacksmithing, wild plants and other living-off-the-land tales.

Five months after they left, the hippies wound up here on the opposite side of the world in every way but geography from the place they left. But land was cheap, and Tennessee seemed friendly enough. They bought 700 acres and quickly added an adjacent 1,000 acres.

Since then - somewhere during a long, strange trip that hasn't quite ended - the hippies became more like the rest of the world, with children and jobs and bills and, these days, old age to think about. And the world, however little, became more like the hippies, with soy milk in the fridge, yoga classes at the gym and recycling boxes at the curb.

Commune to collective

Like B.C. and A.D., history here is measured in before and after the changeover. In the beginning all land was held in common, and it still is today. The residents pooled all savings, inheritances and income for the common good, per common agreement. If you needed supplies from The Farm Store, you went and got them.

If that sounds like a bunch of silly 1970s hippies, it's instructive, particularly after Thanksgiving, to consider that the early Plymouth and Jamestown colonies had communal roots routinely omitted from the traditional first-grade Thanksgiving pageant.

(DAILY Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.)
Former 1970s hippie guru Stephen Gaskin is now considered elder statesman of the commune that he helped found in middle Tennessee.

The Farm grew out of the way-off-campus "Monday Night Classes" by San Francisco State College writing teacher Stephen Gaskin, who today describes his politics as "beatnik" and his religion as "hippie." A Marine Corps veteran who saw combat in Korea, Gaskin was about a decade older than his audience, who came to hear him rap on politics, religion, acid, sex, love and other topics of the day.

"Back in San Francisco when a few hippies got together, the conversation often turned to dreams of land and community," Gaskin wrote in his online biography. "Going to the land seemed like the natural progression of the whole hippie movement."

The Farm people first lived in the buses they arrived in. Then they set up tents. Then some put tin roofs over their tents and walls around them, often salvaged from house or building construction or demolition sites and sawmill leftovers. Eventually, several large permanent houses stood with up to 40 people living in each one. They built a school, erected a water tower, ran water lines to all of the neighborhoods and paved the main road.

"Living lightly on the planet," as they said, they were going to be vegetarian and raise all the food they needed, using a team of horses and a plow, and sell the rest to sustain various outreach projects. The population grew, peaking at about 1,200 in the early 1980s, and The Farm had several satellite communes across the country.

Douglas Stevenson and his wife arrived in 1973 from Kentucky. They were interested in having a midwife delivery. They were vegetarian. They wanted to get back to the land.

"We were activists," Stevenson said. "It was about social change, not about seceding from society. The Farm answered a lot of questions. It satisfied what we were looking for."

These were the hippies with a work ethic, the current residents note. People looking for a laid-back lifestyle left quickly. People who stayed were driven.

And although nobody's willing to call The Farm a drug-free community, Gaskin made clear the realities of being high-visibility hippies in the middle of the rural South after a pot bust that resulted in Gaskin and three others spending up to a year in jail.

Farm life seemed idyllic at first. Women in long, flowing peasant skirts carried baskets of produce on their heads, residents then recalled. The men had gorgeous long hair and wore colorfully patched denim overalls. The children played in the woods and creeks, helped tend gardens and had surrogate parents all around to teach them and keep them safe.

"I look back fondly to those years when The Farm didn't think about money," said Albert Bates, a resident since 1973. "People smiled and laughed a lot. There was a sense all things were possible." But the hippies ran into several problems.

The former city dwellers knew little about farming, and they were competing against neighbors who had farmed for generations, said University of Alabama in Huntsville history professor Andrew Dunar, who chronicled The Farm's development. Farming in general fell on hard times in the '70s.

'Lacked certain skills'

"Being young and inexperienced, we lacked certain skills," Bates agreed. "What was missing in our case was the skill or attention to financial detail. We made some wild investments and wasted enormous resources. Also, there was a human resource management issue. We grew to a scale of thousands of people, beyond what we could possibly manage with people who were fundamentally anarchist in nature and rebellious and not trusting in authority. Try to manage 1,200 people and a far-flung operation with several locations around the country, and you have problems with that."

Locals were amazed when the hippies planted 80 acres of sorghum for molasses. They sold it under the brand name "Old Beatnik Pure Lewis County Sorghum," but it turned out to be far more work than they anticipated.

They opened a couple of restaurants in Nashville and Marin County, Calif. They went on junkets to investigate buying a freighter to deliver Farm products to nonprofit organizations in Central and South America on a charter basis. Both ideas flopped in the end. They also faced minor karmic questions about farming, such as the morality of gelding horses and stealing honey from bees. After residents decided gelding was necessary to work with the horses safely, keeping bees seemed like no big deal.

Nationwide recession in 1980 and 1981, some major medical bills and growing debt from farming operations forced the community to re-evaluate its economic structure. People who started outside businesses resented putting profits back into The Farm instead of reinvesting in new equipment.

But mainly, said Stevenson, too many people provided services inside the community and not enough people earned money. The surrounding towns didn't have enough skilled jobs to support Farm residents. Several small businesses started by Farm residents didn't get off the ground until after the changeover. The Farm sent "brigades" of workers to a printing plant in Nashville and busloads of tree planters on one-month tours, but neither was a practical long-term solution. Parents worried their children were poorly nourished. Most homes lacked indoor plumbing until the 1980s. It was a more grueling lifestyle than many had expected.

Back to the Bay area

Many residents left before the changeover and returned to the San Francisco Bay area. Many who stayed decided they had to change the system to survive, which drove off still more residents.

"There was some lingering thing for a number of years where people felt others had unjustly enriched themselves in the process of the changeover," Bates said. "There was a kind of jealousy or sense of betrayal. It was partly that we had sold out the revolution or that we hadn't sold out fast enough. People tend to freeze in their minds how The Farm was when they left, so you have a certain kind of expatriate who remembers fondly The Farm in its heyday, not remembering it was ringing up massive bills. Within the people who live on The Farm now, I think they've gotten over that and moved on."

As a result of the changeover in 1983, The Farm became more cooperative than commune. The land was still held in common, but each household was allowed to keep its earnings from jobs held on The Farm. The people started charging or bartering for goods and services. Residents were taxed to pay off the commune's $1 million debt and they sold assets like Ice Bean, the country's first commercial nondairy ice cream.

Residents pay about $100 per month in dues, and a seven-person committee elected to three-year terms manages the budget.

Hotbed of entrepreneurship

The Farm's population today is stable at roughly 250 people. On a warm sunny weekday morning, it's quiet because most people are at work on The Farm or off.

There's not much communal living. People "were just burnt out on it," said Stevenson, co-owner of Village Media.

The exodus left enough houses for everyone to have a separate home. Stevenson lives in a duplex with another family. The doors between them remain open, and in the tight-knit community everybody raises everyone else's children as they did before the changeover.

Mobile homes dot the main road. Banks wouldn't lend to people who didn't own land, Stevenson explained. The Farm didn't want to put up land as collateral on houses. But the banks loaned money for "manufactured buildings" and The Farm has seven today.

The Farm still has a half acre of blueberries and a stand of pear trees for its residents to pick, and many still plant gardens, but agriculture as a business is gone. They lease the fields for hay. Even The Farm's soy dairy found it cheaper to import soybeans. The soy milk and vegetarian foods in The Farm Store are pre-packaged commercial products available these days in any major grocery's vegetarian section. They'd like to find someone interested in joining the community and farming the land, but it's only an idea.

The Farm is home to more than 30 small businesses that sprang from the basic skills that the hippies had to learn to support their community or their causes, but all in tune with their core beliefs.

MushroomPeople is a mail-order business that sells growing supplies and information. Farm Soy sells tofu and other soy products. SE International, a business that evolved from the group's anti-nuclear activities, makes handheld Geiger counters used by the nuclear industry, hospitals and other businesses that rely on radioactive materials. The Book Publishing Co. produces books on vegetarian cooking and American Indian culture. Village Media makes videos, Web sites and CD-ROMs for industrial training documentaries, education, or personal events like weddings and reunions. Other businesses do construction, plumbing, excavating, vehicle repair, historic restoration and midwifery workshops.

The Farm's counterculture bona fides were seemingly threatened in 1990 when Forbes magazine investigated doing a profile on the commune as a business hotbed, according to Gaskin. But owner and business tycoon Malcolm Forbes died that March and the story never materialized until USA Today did it years later.

Is it really an entrepreneurial center? Perhaps not in the chamber of commerce sense.

"We're making a living without having to work a straight eight for somebody you don't like," Gaskin said.

The buzzword around here is "right livelihood." "Your work should be seamless with your beliefs," Stevenson said.

The Farm beat the rest of the country to Casual Day in the workplace. But when it's time to work the trade shows, Corey Walker, 40, marketing director for SE International, trades her jeans for business attire. The company employs up to 20 people and sells its detectors for $279 to $4,000. Families work here and managers try to put workers on jobs where they're best suited. It's laid back, but Walker said she watches the market, technology and her competitors as closely as any executive, and is always looking to develop new products.

"After 9-11, sales went up 30 percent," said Walker, who moved here when she was 12 and knows how to operate a chain saw and repair a car as well as solder a circuit board. "North Carolina purchased more than 600 units to distribute to counties. We focus our product line to cover as many markets as possible."

Still out to change world

The Farm has never been a cult that tried to keep the world out. It made friends with its Summertown neighbors and invited church congregations to community discussions. Although it remains something of a world apart from the community, Farm residents still perform midwife births for many in the local Amish community and greet neighbors at their children's Little League and youth soccer games. They vote in elections and have at times put up candidates for local office - but never so many as to upset the locals.

But for many, their main connection to the world is through The Farm's various charities and nonprofits.

Ecovillage serves as a living laboratory and provides onsite and offsite training on environmentally friendly building techniques, including straw bale and earthbag construction, solar power, hybrid vehicles, organic gardening, social justice and conflict resolution. It has conducted training in South America, Russia and Africa.

Plenty International is an international development agency focused on indigenous people, youth, women and the environment. It promotes self-sufficiency in economically disadvantaged or otherwise threatened communities, helping to start projects in 15 countries over its 27-year history.

Plenty's Kids to the Country project sponsors four seasonal programs to bring inner-city youths to The Farm for activities such as horseback riding, gardening, swimming and talent shows.

More than Warmth teaches children about other cultures and conflict while they make quilts that go to children in Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Farm retains its anti-establishment, nonviolent, environmental counterculture roots, even if people don't accentuate them to a visitor. Whether it's about killing animals or the Kyoto Treaty or the military use of land mines, the politics are distinctly liberal.

"Our right is only Democrat," Gaskin said.

Reaganomics and a whiff of FBI conspiracy figure into the lore of why The Farm was forced to change its economic system.

There's still an annual celebration to mark the date of a pot raid in the 1970s by a hundred officers who converged on what turned out to be a field of ragweed.

A poster in The Farm School paints an unflattering picture of "Secretary of Offense" Donald Rumsfeld, and in one corner a glaring figure of Uncle Sam has a fistful of missiles in one hand and dollars in the other.

One of The Farm's reactions to the 9-11 attacks was to create the Peaceroots Alliance, which among other things put up billboards across the country saying "Peace is Patriotic."

"Our reaction was, 'How can we show the world we're not scary? Why are people afraid of us?' as opposed to revenge," Stevenson said.

They were so anti-establishment that when they realized long hair had become a kind of rule around The Farm, many decided to trim their locks, Stevenson said.

"The ideas never really changed - respect for the environment, peace and nonviolence," he said. "The way we saw it in the '70s is the same way we see it today."

Uncertain future

The Farm survived longer than many expected, but it faces an uncertain future, UAH's Dunar said. The hippies are in their 50s and thinking about retirement. Many of their children left for job opportunities elsewhere.

The Farm School needs upgrading. Stevenson said the residents are thinking of ways to provide apartments or housing for newcomers. Some former residents are moving back and building houses adjacent to the commune, including some of the first-generation children who left only to long for the safer, welcoming environment they had on The Farm. The rather extensive process to join includes perhaps a year of visits. The commune is picky about whom it invites to stay.

"The main thing we see as the most critical factor is just getting an established generation of people in their 20s and 30s to settle here, build house and raise their families," Stevenson said. "It's not as easy as it was. People these days aren't ready to live in a tent and a bus. They require and expect adequate housing. That's a challenge for us. Our jobs are limited out there, especially higher income jobs. It's a sacrifice for them to come out and live in a rural area."

Dunar, who has interviewed many residents, said The Farm has managed to fail, change and succeed in its lifetime.

"Virtually everybody I talked to has no regrets they lived there," he said. "Some see the fact their initial system failed as a failure of The Farm. Others see the fact that they're still going and trying to stay true to the principles they founded the place on as success. In another 20 years, we may know whether it's succeeding just in surviving."

Gaskin, who took on the role of respected elder statesman after the changeover, looks like a 21st century Don Quixote in a flannel shirt and lives quietly in a comfortable house that still has the original tent poles from the early days. He still does speaking engagements, and his wife, Ina May, still travels around the world promoting midwifery. The chance to live life on his own terms is a success to him.

"We like the Zen pretty good," Gaskin said. "It says be not like the oak tree, but be thou as a bamboo, which bends and comes back after the wind. We came here to be here. We're living here. We vote in local elections. We work on other issues we care about. We're not disenfranchised, not any more than any average Democrat."


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