The Farm (Tennessee)
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The Farm is an intentional community in Lewis County, Tennessee, near the town of Summertown, Tennessee, based on principles of nonviolence and respect for the Earth. It was founded in 1971 by Stephen Gaskin, and 300 spiritual seekers from Haight Ashbury and San Francisco. The Farm is well known among hippies and members of the counterculture and around the world as the home of modern midwifery. It is widely respected for its many nonprofits, including Plenty International, a relief and development organization, and Swan Conservation Trust, who established the 1400 acre Big Swan Headwaters Preserve. The Farm has approximately 200 members and residents.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Community evolution
- 3 Social and family issues
- 4 Projects
- 5 Technology
- 6 Organizations
- 7 In the media
- 8 Notes
- 9 Sources & Further Reading
- 10 External links
The Farm was established after Stephen Gaskin and friends led a caravan of 60 buses, vans, and trucks from San Francisco on a four-month speaking tour across the US. Along the way, they became a community, lacking only in land to put down roots. After returning to California, the decision was made to buy land together. Combining all their resources would finance purchase of only about fifty acres in California. Another month on the road brought the group back to Tennessee, where they checked out various places that might be suitable to settle. They decided on property in Lewis County, about seventy miles south of Nashville. After buying 1,064 acres (4.1 km2) for $70 per acre, the group began building its community in the woods alongside the network of crude logging roads that followed its ridgelines. Shortly thereafter, an adjoining 750 acres (3.0 km2) were purchased for $100 per acre.
From its founding in the 1970s, Farm members took vows of poverty and owned no personal possessions other than clothing and tools, though this restriction loosened as time passed. During that time, Farm members did not use artificial birth control, alcohol, tobacco, man-made psychotropics., or animal products. Many of the early buildings on the Farm were unconventional, ranging from converted school buses to modified 16 x 32 army tents. Over time, larger homes were constructed, each providing shelter for multiple families and single people, often with up to 40 people under one roof. Visitors were also housed in a two-story tent made by sewing two army tents together.
In the early days, Gaskin was considered the "abbot of the monastery" and made many of the governmental decisions for the group. His role was eventually taken over by a "council of elders" and then a "board of directors" consisting of some of the most respected and influential members of the Farm community. The Farm formed a non-profit corporation called The Foundation to provide a common financial structure for the community and members contributed their incomes to it. A security crew constantly maintained a welcome center at the entrance gate where all traffic passed and was logged.
In the original manifestation of The Farm, all members were believers in the holiness of life and that smoking marajuana was a sacrament. Founding members had all used LSD numerous times and believed they had experienced shared psychedelic vision that bound them together. They said that their cultural conditioning had been blown away enough to experience a world of higher consciousness. They believed in the reality of a spiritual dimension and in universal brotherhood.
The Farm community ate what might today be called a vegan diet. In the introduction of 1978 edition of The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook it states, "We are completely vegetarian. We eat no meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or any kind of animal dairy products. Our diet is based on the soybean, which we eat in many different forms, along with other legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables. We grow our own food and recommend it whenever possible." The book is described as the "family cookbook" of the 1,100 residents living on 1,750 acres in southern middle Tennessee. The rationale for the diet is stated thus: "We are vegetarians because one-third of the world is starving and at least half goes to bed hungry every night. If everyone was vegetarian, there would be enough food to go around, and no one would be hungry."
Gaskin, who had served in the United States Marine Corps, got his start as a religious leader in San Francisco in the 1960s, coming to teach a blend of Eastern religions and Christianity. Due to his devotion to marijuana, he and three followers spent time in 1974 in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville following convictions for growing marijuana on Farm land.
Early growth pains
The Farm's outreach, combined with notoriety through popular media articles, led to a population boom that eventually peaked at around 1600 members living on the main property. Additionally, some satellite farm affinity communities which were located in the U.S. and other countries consolidated by moving to the Tennessee community. Signs started to appear between 1975 and 1979 that the Tennessee community's weak infrastructure and low income was insufficiently developed to support such a continuously large influx of new members, most of whom did not contribute substantially. The Foundation went increasingly into debt. Members were expected to turn over all money to the collective. Some donated inherited wealth or investment income, but most of it went for the group's Third World projects, or for immediate needs such as food and clothing, rather than planned improvements to the property. Occasionally Gaskin would request a large sum to fund his traveling expenses, which included touring around the world. Cottage industries including sorghum molasses, a publishing company and natural food did not generate sufficient income. Former members also blame the community's sincere attempt to put into practice idealistic concepts they had envisioned while taking LSD, along with youthful overconfidence and misguided belief in Gaskin's ideals.
Furthering the Farm's growing pains was a baby boom resulting from the large number of young adults of childbearing age combined with an enthusiastic family philosophy being put into practice. Ina May Gaskin and other resident midwives advertised their services in the national underground press, which led to numerous couples and their infants moving in without contributing. A small number of infants were adopted by Farm members after the midwives offered to accept deliver and keep a woman's baby as an alternative to abortion. Most mothers kept their baby after the child was born or came back for them not long after.
Gaskin insisted that anyone who wished to partake of Farm life should be allowed to try, even those who were seriously mentally ill, believing the experience would be therapeutic. These proved to be a huge drain on the patience and energy of the residents. Lack of electricity and insufficient capacity of sewage infrastructure resources led to some giardia outbreaks and malcontent. Gaskin discouraged expressions of discontent and doubt, so that it was impossible to question the established order or propose improvements. As the Farm's population peaked, a disproportionately higher number of children or less-skilled residents could not significantly contribute to the community's economic needs. Gaskin, who was often traveling, may not have been aware of the seriousness of these deprivations, or believed they would improve if members persevered.
In 1983, due to financial difficulties and also a challenge to Stephen Gaskin's leadership and direction, The Farm changed its residential community agreement and began requiring members to support themselves with their own income rather than to donate all income to The Foundation central corporation. This decollectivization was called the Changeover. Many people left disillusioned. The surrounding local rural area provided few possibilities for outside employment. The nearest large city, Nashville, was a 1.5-hour drive 75 miles (121 km) away. Those who could not adapt to the new dynamics of The Changeover found it difficult to remain. Those who had forged independent business opportunities or had reduced overhead could afford to stay.
Eventually the population settled back down to fewer than 200 adults and children. Those who continued living in the community were buoyed by its freedom and peaceful atmosphere, and the safety and security it provided for their children. The $400,000 plus debt was paid off after several years and the community became debt-free. An entrepreneurial spirit took hold, and numerous small businesses were established to provide support for the residents. Many members went back to school to get degrees in the medical field, and many now work at clinics and hospitals throughout Middle Tennessee.
In the 1990s, with the community back on solid ground, The Farm returned to its original purpose of initiating social change through outreach and example. The Ecovillage Training Center was established as an educational facility in new technologies such as solar energy, bio fuels, and construction techniques based on locally available, eco-friendly materials.
The Farm's population is approximately 200; residents are mostly baby boomers (about 70%), many of whom have lived on The Farm for most of its existence. Those interested in becoming residents are encouraged to visit during the bi-annual Farm Experience Weekend, which provides a glimpse into how the community operates and functions.
In 2004, the Wholeo Dome (a geodesic dome fourteen feet in diameter and seven feet tall, covered with curved stained glass panels) was installed at The Farm. It was created in 1974 by artist Caroling Geary. In May 2010 repairs were completed on the Wholeo Dome, but is currently in storage due to issues with the lead in stained glass artwork.
The Farm maintains contact with some of its 4000-plus former members through email lists, social media forums, an annual reunion each summer, and through the work of its nonprofit organizations. Former members have gone on to become leaders in many different fields and endeavors, maintaining a sense of right livelihood and a commitment to the betterment of the world.
Social and family issues
Stephen Gaskin believed that marriage was a sacred act and that the sexuality between two people was created by the flow of cosmic energy, which was known as “the juice”. “For a community to exist in harmony and balance, both kinds of energy had to be nurtured, and most importantly shared.” The ideology of marriage at the Farm could be described as “synergistic”. Seriousness and commitment were required in marriage. With the exception of the Rhythm Method, in the early years birth control was frowned upon, and abortions were prohibited in the community. As an alternative to abortion, the Farm publicly offered to deliver any baby for free and then to find a loving family to raise the child. If the birth mother ever wanted the child she could have it back, and ultimately most kept their baby. Childbearing was natural, and births were attended by midwives. Premarital sex was greatly discouraged, and most couples on the Farm were married.
Some of the original community members believed in the practice of group marriage. The “four marriage system” was viewed as an important social structure in the early days of the commune. It was taught only people with great ability and “the juice” were in plural marriages. None of these marriages survived more than ten years, most lasted no longer than five. And in some instances, the couples switched partners when the "four marriage" ended.
The Farm had its own electrical crew, composting crew, farming crew, communications, construction & demolition crew, clinic, firewood crew, alternative energy crew, motor pool, laundromat, tofu plant, bakery, school and ambulance service. It established The Book Publishing Company, which published the works of the Gaskins and other Farm members. The Farm's midwifery school and Ina May Gaskin's seminal book Spiritual Midwifery are well known throughout the world for their emphasis on maternal and newborn compassion, safety and success rates.
They also ran a "soy dairy", which developed and later marketed a soymilk ice "cream" called "Ice-Bean", and a vegetable store in the town of Summertown.
Tennessee Farm Band
They maintained The Farm Band, a rock group in the early 'jam band' style, which toured the country performing for free at parks, schools, churches, and other accessible venues. Albums from the 1970s include The Farm Band on Mantra Records, and Up in Your Thing, High On the Rim of the Nashville Basin and Communion on Farm Tapes & Records. There were also a number of 45 releases. All Farm Band recordings were self-produced and distributed. During the 2000s (decade), Akarma Records in Italy have distributed bootleg copies of their albums. In addition to the rock music recordings, Stephen Gaskin released a spoken word album titled the Great Western Tour in 1974, which was produced and distributed in the same way as their other LPs.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Another music project of The Farm was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (also known as "NRC"), a New wave music band. They released a 7-inch EP, We Are the NRC, and an album, Reactor, in 1980, and a second 7-inch EP, Sally's All Alone (After the End), in 1982.
In 1974, after helping local neighbors after a tornado, the Farm formed Plenty (later, Plenty International), its charitable works arm. It began by gathering and supplying food for local disaster victims and holding weekly "quilting bees" to make blankets for them.
Plenty's most notable early project was its four-year presence in the Guatemalan highlands after the earthquake of 1976, helping to rebuild 1,200 houses and lay 27 kilometers of waterpipe. There, it established a micro-commune of volunteers and their families, living simply among Mayan populations and working under the approval of the military government.
In 1980, Plenty was the recipient of the first Right Livelihood Award, an alternative to the Nobel prize, also based in Sweden.
Plenty donated an ambulance in the early 1980s to the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation in upstate New York. Two Farmies – one a paramedic and one an EMT – taught a licensed Emergency Medical Technician course to 22 reservation residents, helping them set up their first Mohawk-run EMT service, the "Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Ambulance Unit". Plenty has set up clinics in Lesotho and Mexico and created the Jefferson Award-winning South Bronx Ambulance Project in New York City.
Plenty maintains an office in Belize, Central America, which initiated a school lunch program based on organic gardens planted next to each school to help provide more vegetables for the children's diets. A midwifery program helped train over 60 Mayan women from villages throughout the region in prenatal care and safe delivery techniques.
Plenty was one of the first relief organizations to enter New Orleans, getting past federal roadblocks to bring supplies to survivors just three days after Hurricane Katrina. Plenty helped establish a base camp for volunteers and channeled funding to Common Ground Collective, a local group assisting in cleanup, legal defense services, and the operation of free clinics. Plenty volunteers purchased and restored a home in the area to serve as a headquarters for housing relief volunteers and construction crews helping to rebuild homes.
Melvyn Stiriss, a Plenty volunteer carpenter describes a year of earthquake reconstruction, working with Mayans, in Hippie Peace Corps Goes to Guatemala, part 4 of Voluntary Peasants published by New Beat Books, Warwick, NY 2015
The Book Publishing Company
Some of the early titles produced by the Book Publishing Company illustrated the early interests of the Farm community; volumes included The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook (ed. Louise Hagler, 1975), Volume One: Sunday Morning Services on the Farm by Stephen Gaskin, ...this season's people by Stephen Gaskin, Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin, A Cooperative Method of Natural Birth by Margaret Nofziger, The Big Dummy's Guide to C.B. Radio by "Albert Houston and the Radio Crew," and Shutdown: Nuclear Power on Trial, by Dr. John Gofman and Dr. Ernest Sternglass.
There was no infrastructure grid on The Farm's land when it was first settled by the nascent community. Originally relying on antique kerosene lanterns and manual message runners, The Farm grew rapidly to adopt appropriate technology for electricity, communications, medical, mass media, education, and entertainment. Some of the early residents of The Farm brought their skills as engineers and technicians with them; they took on a multi-year development to build The Farm's novel network of communications and electrical supply.
Initially, a single landline or party line shared with several of their Tennessee neighbors was available for outside telephone calls, with a waiting list for any calls. Spurred mainly by the need for prompt childbirth assistance and emergency medical response, a field-phone style party line system was installed by The Farm's telephone crew in 1971. Telephone lines were expanded to widely cover even the most remote areas over the following year. Instead of common telephone bell ringers, the first telephones used Morse Code beeps to signal a call. The party line, affectionately known as Beatnik Bell, was eventually enabled in 1974 to route calls via a manual operator interconnect link patch to the outside line. Later, a 500 line Kellogg-ITT Relaymatic rotary dial phone system was installed in PBX configuration, with multiple outside trunk lines gated through a plug-style manual switchboard operator. Basic community CATV cables were later run to some areas along the telephone line paths.
The Farm installed its own water system and water towers. Some individuals initially resisted running electricity and power lines beyond the administration office and publishing center, with the hope of establishing off-grid decentralized utilities instead. The electrical supply 120/240 VAC mains system evolved from supplying only a few industrial buildings near the main Farm Road in 1971 to the point by the 1980s where most areas were covered either by 12 Volt automotive battery trickle charge systems. Most homes phased out the use of kerosene lamps by 1975, as they converted to 12 Volt lighting and RV appliances or re-purposed automotive lighting fixtures. Off-grid low voltage 12 Volt DC systems were also sometimes powered by swapping vehicle batteries. After the economic change in 1983, all home were connected to the standard electrical grid.
The first use of wireless communications on The Farm was in 1971, when a ham radio HF SSB system was set up. Ham radio was used for health and welfare regional communications between mobile ham operators who were on the road with The Farm Band. The Farm Net, as the ham radio network was known, evolved into a worldwide daily operations schedule on 21332 kHz and 21442 kHz Upper Sideband in the 15-meter band, and a regional schedule on the 40-meter ham band. At the network's peak in 1978, The Farm Net included over 40 ham radio operators on associated and affinity communities, as well as many HF SSB mobiles. From its main base station, The Farm Net expanded to cover HF SSB communication links to stations in North America, Africa, and Europe using a field of tall radio towers on The Farm's ridgetop. Ham radio operators from The Farm volunteered with the Plenty International disaster relief operations for the 1976 Guatemala earthquake, with the Greenpeace anti-whaling campaigns, and many humanitarian response efforts worldwide. Ham radio was invaluable for voice communications consultations between doctors and field medical teams, and it included the use of HF slow scan TV for the relatively new concept of telemedicine. The ham radio was also used for technical discussions about alternative sources of energy, a popular topic among the back-to-the-land-movement, especially during the time of the 1970s energy crisis. The Farm's ham radio operators also used CB radios, as the cost of CB transceivers had dropped impressively during the mid-1970s. CB radios were widely adopted by The Farm for mobile general purpose local communications during this time, while CB radio was starting to become a nationwide craze. This eventually led to the writing of the book The Big Dummy's Guide to CB Radio, which became a non-fiction bestseller. The popularity and sales of The Big Dummy's Guide To CB Radio fueled the launch of the Book Publishing Company's new printing presses, and provided much-needed income for The Farm at a crucial time in its growth. Later, The Farm's medical and security communications utilized VHF FM handheld two-way radios.
The Farm is home to many organizations. These organizations include the following:
- The Midwifery Center, led by Ina May Gaskin, referred to as "the mother of authentic midwifery."
- The Ecovillage Training Center, which offers conferences and seminars on organic gardening, permaculture, strawbale construction, and sustainable technologies.
- Plenty International, an international aid and development NGO that helps indigenous populations, at-risk children, and the environment.
- Kids To The Country, a Plenty project that brings at-risk kids to The Farm to enjoy nature, to relax and be kids, and to study peace education.
- More Than Warmth, an educational project for students of all ages to learn about world cultures. It fosters understanding, knowledge, and compassion between cultures through nonviolent, nonpolitical, and nonreligious means.
- PeaceRoots Alliance links individuals and groups dedicated to peace efforts around the country and beyond with real projects and actions.
- The Swan Conservation Trust is an organization dedicated to restoring and preserving natural resources and wildlife habitat.
- SE International, Inc., designer, manufacturer, and distributor of Radiation Alert detectors, Geiger counters, dosimeters, and ionizing radiation spectrum analyzers.
- Swan Conservation Trust, a land trust organization that established the 1400 acre Big Swan Headwaters Preserve
- The Book Publishing Company publishes books about sustainable and healthful living. Imprints include Books Alive, Healthy Living Publications, Healthy World Cuisine, Botanica Press, and Native Voices. Most of the books are authored by non-members of The Farm.
The Farm School
The Farm School is a K-12 school that provides alternative education to approximately 20 students on its main campus and over 900 homeschooling students in its Satellite Campus Program. Peter Kindfield, Ph.D., principal.
The school's mission is "Supporting individuals learning together as we interact, form relationships and build community with each other and the rest of the world.."
In the media
Farm founder, long-time resident and former UPI wire service journalist Melvyn Stiriss speaks about The Farm at colleges, universities and centers around the U.S. His book Voluntary Peasants is the most recent comprehensive book about the history and experience of living on The Farm.
The Farm was featured in Peter Jenkins' travel book A Walk Across America. Jenkins lived and worked at the farm in the seventies for some time before continuing his trip. Jenkins's canine companion, Cooper, was accidentally run over and killed by the farm's water truck while he was playfully sprinting underneath the moving truck from one side to the other.
A feature documentary, "American Commune", about growing up on The Farm has been produced by filmmakers, former residents and sisters, Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo.
A book on The Farm written by members and former members and edited by Rupert Fike is available: "Voices from The Farm: Revised Edition.". This revised edition includes many never-before-published images from The Farm's early years.
Another book on The Farm written by Douglas Stevenson is also available: "Out To Change The World." This book too includes many never-before-published images from The Farm's early years.
- Michael Gavin, The Farm in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture,
- New York Times: Stephen Gaskin, Hippie Who Founded an Enduring Commune, Dies at 79, by Douglas Martin
- Meunier, Rachel (1994) Communal Living in the Late 60s and Early 70s. Human Issues Project. Archived version retrieved on 24 April 2017.
- Kevin Kelly, "Why We Left The Farm." Interviews with eight founding members describing the origins of the Farm, and how an influx of mentally ill residents and expectant couples, lack of utilities, money mismanagement and Gaskin's disconnect caused the near collapse of the project. Whole Earth Review, Winter 1985.
- Hagler, Louise, ed. (1978). The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook (revised ed.). Summertown, Tenn.: The Book Publishing Company.
- "How They Keep Them Down On The Farm". Harrowsmith, Reprint (May/June 1977). New York Times. 1 May 1977.
- Lattin, Don (2 March 2003). "Twilight of hippiedom / Farm commune's founder envisions return to the fold as ex-dropouts age". San Francisco Chronicle, Newspaper (Morning). The San Francisco Chronicle. SFGate. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
- (Kern, 1993)
- Lundborg, Patrick. The Acid Archives.
- Bates, Albert. "Lifeboats: A Memoir". MariposaGroup. MariposaGroup. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
- Massey, David. "A History of the Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company" (PDF). Telephone Archive. Chicago, Illinois, USA: Telephone Archive. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
- Macdonald, Copthorne (1 July 1974). "Using Ham Radio, License Tips and Teleprinters, Using Ham Radio on The Farm". Mother Earth News (July/August 1974 ed.). Kansas, USA: Ogden Publications. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
- Macdonald, Copthorne (1 May 1981). "Human Unity Conference, Ham Radio Networks, and Other Amateur Radio Initiatives". Mother Earth News (May/June 1981 ed.). Topeka, Kansas, USA: Ogden Publications. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
- Houston; et al. (1976). The Big Dummy's Guide To CB Radio (1st ed.). Summertown, Tenn.: The Book Publishing Company. p. 128. ISBN 0913990043.
- Lorente, Carol. (1995) "Mother of midwifery: Ina May Gaskin hopes to birth a local movement of midwives". Vegetarian Times – Special Women's Health Issue. July. Retrieved on June 23, 2007.
- , The Farm School website
Sources & Further Reading
- Voluntary Peasants: memoirs of the community's origin and life on The Farm by UPI's Melvyn Stiriss, "who followed the 60s over the edge".
- Coate, John (1987). "Life on the Bus and Farm: an Informal Recollection."
- Fike, Rupert (ed), Voices from The Farm: Adventures in Community Living (1998) ISBN 1-57067-051-X
- Jenkins, Peter. A Walk Across America. Jenkins discusses his stay at The Farm in Chapters 20 through 22. William Morrow & Co., 1979.
- Kern, Louis (1993). The Farm Midwives. Retrieved February 1, 2008, from The Farm Web site
- "Why We Left The Farm", Whole Earth Review #49, Winter 1985, pp 56–66 (stories from eight former members)
- "Farm Stories", Whole Earth Review #60, Fall 1988, pp 88–101 (reprinted from the WELL, by two former members)