...back to top of article

Transportation

Our baseline for transportation was what we arrived with or purchased within the first few years of The Farm: gas automobiles, trucks, buses, and tractors. We also cut and pasted large hunks of junk into useful vehicles. Buscrafting was something of an art on the West Coast before the Caravan left, so it shouldn't be surprising to find there was no reluctance in chopping the back end off a schoolbus to make a big pickup truck or a flatbed. We had a few of those. The cutoff sections were turned into houses and sheds. We also applied these skills to truckcrafting. So, for instance, when a 30-foot GMC truck needed to be used for long distance hauling and the crew wanted a sleeper cabin so they could rotate drivers, they welded the front half of a Ford Econoline van onto the roof of the cab. To send the rock music band out on tour, we tore out the seats of a greyhound scenicruiser and put in beds, a kitchen, a ham radio room, and a nursery.

We also experimented with alternate fuels, including propane or methane powered vehicles and electrics. The first experiments with electric vehicles were modifications of old golf carts to suit dirt road driving needs. We tore out the golf club mounts and put in back seats or trunk areas. Then we built our first hybrid electric cart, which used a lawnmower engine to recharge the batteries as the vehicle traveled. This turned out to have some very good fuel economies, because the load leveling was done by the electric motor, rather than the gas engine. The gas engine could run at a constant speed and torque setting to get the best possible gas mileage. It really needed a variable speed transmission to succeed though, and those were simply not available in the late 1970s and still aren't, although Detroit is experimenting with them. Based on the hybrid golf cart experiment, we built two hybrid electric cars, both Datsun wagons with 5-speed Datsun truck transmissions and rear ends. These designs achieved greater than 100 mile per gallon fuel efficiencies with unlimited range, but had very limited top speeds of only 30 and 45 miles per hour, respectively.

In 1981, we built a rechargeable electric cart that was powered by a photovoltaic array of three semiamorphous silicon panels on the roof. On a sunny day, it had a range of about 8 miles. That car was displayed at the 1982 World's Fair, where it was driven in the daily parade through the fairgrounds.

The hybrid and solar electric vehicle research led to interest in a low cost mechanical engine that would generate motive power directly from sunlight. The Department of Energy provided a grant to study some of these concepts, and a prototype heat engine was produced that captured sunlight in a parabolic dish and drove a piston and crankshaft, using plain air as the compressive medium. Research was also undertaken to study other compressive gases, but discontinued when the grant program was ended by the Republican Administration of 1981.

Having built some vehicles that ran on a variety of fuels, we became interested in alternate fuel production. A number of home-scale biogas generators were built, but few had any practical applications. After some success with a laboratory scale ethanol still, we actually constructed a large, community-production scale, fuel ethanol still, which had a 15 foot fractionating column and could do hundred-gallon batches. We hoped, in the giddy days of the late 1970s, to create a commercial gasohol business. That whole program collapsed with the Farm's economic difficulties in the early 1980s, and the concurrent drop in oil prices. The large still never ran very well, and we never had the money to iron out the bugs. We abandoned it in 1982 and tore it down in 1984.

Communications

The baseline communications system of the bus caravan was word of mouth. When the buses fanned out through the woods, the first system of mass communication was the chant, picked up and echoed at full volume. In the hippie idiom, "yark" meant something like being shocked or disgusted. Like you are walking down the street and you see a squashed frog. You say, "Yark!" In 1972, the yark was a shared chant, as in Yaaaaaahhhhhh-aaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrkkkkkkkkkkkk, sustained as long as you could, with everyone else joining in over a three-square mile area. It didn't have any real message content, it just let you know we're all still here. Conch shells summoned people to breakfast, or to Sunday Services, or to town meetings. As late as 1974, there was only one telephone for 500 people to use for outgoing calls.

The same phone wire that was used to string electric lights up inside tents and buses was used to wire together an interfarm phone system we called Beatnik Bell. If you were 9 months pregnant and did not have a phone line to your neighborhood midwife, someone came and installed a phone in your bus. It wasn't a dial system. You picked up the phone and hit a toggle switch or button to buzz the system. Everyone with a phone had a different code. The horse barn was long short short short (Morse for "B"). An "all points" was 8 or 10 shorts.

In late 1973 or early 1974, The Farm made a deal with the local phone company in the nearby town of Loretto to take their old dial phone system in exchange for some tree planting. We got 400 phones, a wire and headset switchboard, a big switching bank, and a lot of other goodies. That put Beatnik Bell into a dial phone system. Now, if you could get one of the outside lines, you could call your parents in Indiana from the comfort of your tent. The old system of coded buzzes was kept as a hot line, mostly for the clinic and gate to use, and had a 24-hour operator. The new system gave you a dial tone and we printed up Beatnik Bell phone books. We didn't much like the standard dial tone so it was replaced with music, like reggae or rock and roll, or used for taped bulletins. The all points bulletins got to be so popular that sometimes you had to listen for several minutes to hear the whole dial tone message. It notified you of things like people needed at canning to put up catsup, or a new system for taking turns at the laundry, or someone needed to stand night duty at the gate, or where tomato pickers were needed the next morning.

When Stephen and The Farm Band went out on speaking and free concert tours they often took some of the key people in the Farm's systems with them, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. In order to stay in touch with Stephen, or Ina May, who was the head midwife, or the bus driver, who was also the best truck mechanic, The Farm set up an amateur radio room in the horse barn and built a tall antenna. Another ham set was put into the bus. Using licensed ham operators on either end, The Farm could keep in touch with these people around the clock without paying long distance phone bills. This ham radio system, started by a Farm teenager who had a boy scout ham radio merit badge, became the basis for some of the Farm's most significant technological achievements.

As time went on, more people got ham radio licenses and took turns running the base station. To get a ham license you have to learn fundamental electronics and Morse code. Thirty-eight people on the Farm got licenses. Occasionally people would join The Farm who owned farms in other states and were interested in starting up a kind of Farm-like colony elsewhere. Sometimes people wanted to leave The Farm and return to some other place to start something similar on their own. These people came to be called astronauts, and the way they stayed in touch was as often as not by ham radio. Over the course of some years, the ham base station in Tennessee grew in size and power and began occupying a regular time and frequency on the radio bands. Other amateurs used to tune into The Farm net to follow the action, which was pretty interesting. When astronauts went to Europe, the ham operators at The Farm built powerful, multi-element antenna arrays, called "Yagis," for use at both ends of the link. This greatly extended the international reach of the Farm network.

When The Farm started fielding volunteers to help with earthquake recovery in Guatemala, and orphans in BanglaDesh and reforestation in Africa, we operated what we called the "Plenty Relief Net" to keep the volunteers hooked up to home and family. We loaned ham operators to Greenpeace to set up a better radio system aboard the Rainbow Warrior and at their various European offices, as they non-violently confronted whalers in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They kept tuned to the Farm net and at one time used that as the principal news link to the international media covering the Greenpeace campaign.33 Reporters from British or Canadian newspapers might be aboard the Rainbow Warrior, but their newspapers got the story by way of a ham radio in a horse barn in Tennessee.34

One of the people we met by way of The Farm radio net was Copthorne McDonald, who had invented a slow-scan (SSTV) method of sending television pictures on ham radio frequencies, but had found few practical uses for it. McDonald donated the first SSTV unit he had built, which had previously been aboard the USS Hope. We installed a TV camera in the barn and put another one at different distant locations like in the highland villages of Guatemala or aboard the Rainbow Warrior or at our California Farm. We could bring Guatemalans up to Tennessee to learn how to fix a truck or a CB and they could go to the barn and wave to the folks back home by ham television.

We also used inexpensive citizen band radios for local communications. The whole population of the Farm was covered by a single FCC license, KHT 1296.35 We found that we could also soup CB antennae up so that we could talk to Guatemala on 5 watts of power, but a more standard (and legal) interface would be for us to patch our CB link into our ham link and reverse the process on the other end. We also had a phone patch so that anyone on the CB or amateur bands could talk to anyone on Beatnik Bell and vice-versa. We actually had situations come up where a nurse used the CB in her truck to call our base at The Farm, which patched it through to our Beatnik Bell operator, who located a doctor and patched the call directly to him. Taking that a step farther, the doctor could have used the CB in his truck to connect either with the Beatnik Bell operator or directly with the ham base on The Farm for international communications with our projects in Guatemala, Lesotho or Ireland. Such a conversation might have run something like this:

1st Ham: This is K4IAP, Net Control for the Plenty Relief Net, calling WB4BWR.

2nd Ham: Roger Dee, K4IAP. This is WB4BWR. We have emergency medical traffic. Can you phone patch us into the doctor? Over.

1st Ham: Roger. We now have the doctor on the phone. Go ahead and put Mary Louise on.

2nd Ham: K4IAP this is WB4BWR preparing to run emergency medical phone patch traffic. A clear frequency would be appreciated.

Nurse: "We have a pulse of 120 and going up, over."

1st Ham: "WB4BFR, over."

Doctor: "What's his temperature?"

2nd Ham: "KHT1296, over."

Nurse: "Temperature is normal, over."

This whole network was also linked to the high frequency FM band used by The Farm Ambulance Service and the local hospitals. We used CB to stay in touch with our truckers, our medical crew (which numbered as many as 60 people at one point), and our sales crews that went out selling produce, books, and other products we made. When CB radio became a big fad in the US, we published the Big Dummy's Guide to CB Radio, which not only told you how to use a CB, but how to fix one as well. This book, originally published in 1975, later came out in a 40 channel edition and a British edition, and was just revised and reprinted last month.36

We also experimented with portable and solar powered radio sets, including lightweight ham sets that could be carried to remote areas, like BanglaDesh, Lesotho and Central America.37 We set up a CB radiophone booth in Guatemala that was powered by a photovoltaic array. We have a photovoltaic powered ham station in Lesotho, still. At one time the ham station at the barn ran on photovoltaics or wind power, or both, simultaneously. In 1981, Farm technicians developed and installed a solar powered communications system to link 10 Indian villages in the Toledo district of Belize.38 This system is still in operation today, linking school classrooms via VHF-FM two-way radios.

After 1985, we moved out of ham radio for the most part and into computer networks. We experimented a little with ham modems, but the prices on electronic bulletin boards like MCI-Mail and the availability of international access points like Tymnet and Telenet made ham radio no longer economically advantageous. You don't need an electronics license to join MCI-Mail. You can send an instant message anywhere in the world for 45 cents. That's what we use now.

We still have fairly sophisticated medical radio systems. The gatehouse at The Farm houses a cellular phone transmitter with a 50-mile range. Anyone on The Farm needing medical assistance can call a local number which will put them onto a relay to that system that will page a medic on call. The responding medic has a small communicator on his belt, or in his jumpbag and he or she turns that on and talks directly to the person seeking help. We call this our First Responder system. There is only one paramedic on duty at any given time, but we can get an ambulance to you within 2 or 3 minutes of when you picked up the phone. In 1977, I was working on my roof and a beam collapsed and I fell 10 feet, landing on my back. My rib was broken and it had punctured my lung. I couldn't get my breath. My wife picked up the phone and within about a minute I had a paramedic at my side administering first aid. The ambulance was backing down my driveway and a doctor was en route. At times like that you are really greatful for the small amenities of a well-organized, close-knit community.

Ham radio was one of the things we did with communications that got us thinking about how we might better communicate with ourselves. One project that came to fruition was our local educational FM radio station, WUTZ-FM. It ran for about 4 years, finally closing when the economy of The Farm collapsed in 1983. During the same period, we had our own local cable TV station, NBS-TV. NBS stood for "No Bull Shit." A lot of the programming was produced by teenagers who went around with a videocam and interviewed people to find out what was happening on The Farm. We had local news shows, Sunday services, reports from antinuke demonstrations, and from the Third World, as well as entertainment videotapes and movies.

What really brought NBS, and the whole cable project, into existence was our fascination with homebuilt Earth Stations. In 1980, some of the ham radio operators built a receiving "dish" out of chicken wire and a square of oak 2 x 4s. They actually were able to see television signals being sent out from the networks and thought that was pretty neat. One thing led to another and pretty soon they were using parabolic dishes 20 feet in diameter and watching TV signals from Europe and South America as well as HBO, CSpan, and network news feeds. Then they programmed a tracking dish with an early Apple computer. Since everyone wanted HBO and CNN in their homes, the Farm cable system was a natural outgrowth, although probably more expensive than the community could really afford at that point. And that led to NBS.

As early as 1974, we were able to broadcast low frequency local television signals to home TVs on channels 3 and 6. The broadcasts used the Farm phone wires as an antenna. Anyone who was within 50 feet of a phone wire could pick up these channels, although the signals were never very good. The phone wire antenna was more useful for broadcasting the FM radio signals that preceded our educational FM radio station, WUTZ.

In the early 1980s, The Farm got into commercial satellite dish sales and installations, and published a book, The World of Satellite Television. When The Farm was going broke and changing systems and most of the people were going out looking for whole new areas of employment, some of the ham and electronics people settled into jobs editing satellite dish trade publications, developing elegant but inexpensive dish controllers and receivers with built-in scanners that map all TV sources in the heavens, working with organizations like Northern Telecom and Aspen Institute doing technical video teleconferencing, or working with Silicon Valley ventures developing new kinds of cellular pagers and portable communicators, and the next generation of space-based communications systems. While we are still in touch with most of these people, they are no longer living on The Farm or directly connected to it.

Healing Arts

The Farm's initial settlers were confronted with a serious dilemma in the surfeit of first-time pregnancies and the absence of nearby hospital facilities. The response to this dilemma was a comprehensive medical program designed almost totally by women.39 I have mentioned some of the communications and other systems used to support the midwives, but it should also be recognized that beyond merely finding low-cost appropriate community medical technologies, The Farm also pioneered in a number of primary health care areas. First time pregnancies, pregnancies out of hospital, pregnancies beyond the fourth, and pregnancies after age 35 are, according to conventional medical wisdom, high risk situations. Our experience delivering for ourselves and for the neighboring Old Order Amish disproved that. In nearly 2,000 births, including 11 sets of twins, 95.3% were at home, 42% were first-time mothers, and we delivered Amish mothers as old as 50 years and with as many as 19 children. Our overall statistics to date are superior to modern hospitals: 0.67% stillbirths, including 0.24% lethal anomalies; 0.61% neonatal deaths, including 0.18% lethal anomalies; 1.8% cesarian deliveries; 0.67% forceps deliveries; 0.3% pre-eclampsia;40 and zero maternal mortality. Our midwives believe that these statistics were made possible by the individually designed care afforded in the system designed by women and by the cultural environment in which mutual support, courage and caring were dominant values. Doctors would never be willing to take the kinds of risks that we took in order to find out the methods we were using were less risky than the "safe" systems used in most hospitals.

Computers

As I mentioned, we have largely replaced ham radio with computers these days. The Plenty Net still exists today, but its on MCI-Mail. We have laptop computers that we take home with us and plug into our home computers, or take out of country and plug into whatever systems we encounter on the way. We use MacIntoshes to publish our books (like the new World of CB Radio), and journals and newsletters, and other computers to do our accounting and business management. Some on-the-Farm businesses have multi-user systems or multiplexing networks. We telecommunicate with each other and all over the world.

One of the last new businesses that started and vanished in the change that overtook The Farm in the early 1980s was a software development company called Softwave. In the year it lasted, it produced two programs for home computers, a database manager called Filemaster, and an arithmetic learning program called Flower Power.

When Al Gore left his house seat to run for the Senate, we liked one of the seven candidates who announced for his seat and offered to help computerize his campaign. From our offices on The Farm, we sent out mailings targeting all the voters who had voted democratic in the last three congressional elections. As the primary drew closer, we stepped up the mailings. Our man won, and we repeated the process in the general election. He was so pleased about our work he bragged about us to all the Tennessee politicians who'd listen. One of those who listened was the Speaker of the House, Ned Ray McWherter, who had a mind to run for governor. He hired our two top computer jockeys to work for him, 2 years before the election. They set up a system that managed his mail, finances, reporting and taxes. When he took office in January of 1987, one of the people from The Farm was on his transition team. Now there are people from The Farm working in various functions in the State House, from secretaries on the Governor's staff to troubleshooters in the Finance Department. But the story doesn't end there. These same people are now helping Albert Gore.

Other Farm alumni have also gone out to join the Third Wave. One fellow on The Farm designed a new cordless computer mouse that works in three dimensions. Its called The Bat. He designed it while he was still living on The Farm, but he went out to try to find someone to build it. Another ham radio operator from The Farm is working north of San Francisco building computer teaching peripherals that cross tape recorders and computer display screens to make your computer work kind of like a player piano and teach you things. When he was on The Farm, he designed, built and marketed a doppler fetoscope that monitored fetal heart rate and can image the fetal position without intrusive and potentially damaging techniques like x-rays.

Matthew McClure, who worked on the Whole Earth Catalog before coming to The Farm in the early 1970s, left in the early 1980s to go back to the Whole Earth office and set up a big bulletin board called The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link). After helping to develop and operate that, he turned it over to two other ex-Farm members to run and he joined with The Farm's former Softwave family to start a software development company that brings students from China to San Francisco to work writing programs and learning U.S. programming conventions.

Geiger Counters

Finally, the electronics part of this story would not be complete without a look at the Farm's radiation detectors, which are still one of our principal businesses. In 1978, we started going to antinuke demonstrations and protesting nuclear power and weapons programs, and we realized that we were pretty defenseless where environmental radiation is concerned. Radiation is invisible to the human senses, but it passes into your body and destroys your genetic material, creating cancers and birth defects. Bad stuff. To deal with it, you need to be able to detect it. We decided that most Geiger counters that were available were too big, too crude, and too expensive. We wanted to know if we stumbled into a radioactive area, so we wanted something with an alarm on it. What we developed we called The Nukebuster, because it was a cross between a fuzzbuster and a Geiger counter. You put it on your dashboard and plugged it into the cigarette lighter. You could go along monitoring counts per minute, either with a chirper or by LED display. If you got into a field of radioactivity 3 times background an alarm would sound. Another alarm would come on at 10 times background.

The next generation of nukebusters had a little radiation level meter and a window to allow you to monitor alpha and beta, as well as gamma. The Geiger tube had a thin mica window at one end to permit alpha particles to be measured. The box got fancier and began looking more like a fuzzbuster as we tried to sell the product to hospitals, fire departments and state police. We called it Radiation Alert. We developed a smaller case that was about the size of a 100-mm cigarette pack, called Radiation Alert Mini or Mini Alert. The Mini was the first device to provide a regulated 500-volt source to the Geiger tube while only drawing 80 microamps of power. This meant it could be powered by a 9-volt battery, which was good for about 2000 hours of operation. This was the first Geiger counter that could run continuously for 3 months on a single 9-volt battery. The Mini-Alert broke size barriers and price barriers and made light, accurate, compact and inexpensive Geiger counters widely available for the first time.41

In the aftermath of Three Mile Island, the business blossomed. We created our own molded plastic design for our Monitor-4, a small, lightweight counter with an easy-to-read meter. These solid state devices were calibrated to a National Bureau of Standards cesium-137 source. They are very accurate. Recently, commercial health physics users have been interested in specialized models, so we have introduced, or are about to introduce, the Monitor 4E and 5, and the area Monitors 500 and 5000. We still sell Monitor-4s all over the world and had a big surge in sales in Europe last year following the Chernobyl disaster.

Among the more ambitious projects that we have applied these detectors to are remote, photovoltaically powered detectors and stack monitors to enable local governments and citizens' groups to surround the sources of environmental radioactivity with their own monitoring systems. We did a study with Greenpeace to see if we could set up an independent monitoring network around the Nevada Test Site to track offsite releases from the underground weapons tests. We also equipped the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, with its own radiation monitoring equipment which it employed in its North Atlantic operations against French reprocessing at Cap Le Hague, against British reprocessing at Windscale, and against British ocean dumping. Greenpeace also used this equipment in its South Pacific actions in the Marshall Islands and in connection with the French weapons tests in Muruoa that eventually sent the Rainbow Warrior to the bottom of Aukland harbor.42

In 1980, we demonstrated a computer-VHF linkup to a meeting of State and Local Civil Defense organizations sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With FEMA's assistance, we placed a solar-powered monitor at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Chattanooga. The monitor measured radiation levels and sent the data to a computer terminal at the FEMA meeting in Nashville,43 150 miles away, demonstrating that States did not have to rely upon public utilities to supply environmental monitoring data when making evacuation decisions, as they did at Three Mile Island. We also worked with FEMA and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency in a design study of truck weigh stop monitors that would detect radiation coming from interstate transports of nuclear materials.

One often overlooked radiation monitoring device is the humble spiderwort plant, Tradescantia. Dr. Sadeo Ichikawa at Kyoto University developed a Tradescantia clone, the KU-9, which is a hardy perennial at most latitudes within the continental U.S., and he was kind enough to give some to The Farm when he was in the U.S. in 1978. The KU-9 has two genes for stamen and petal color, a dominant blue and a recessive pink. When a plant suffers genetic damage, such as is caused by environmental radiation, it changes from predominantly blue to predominantly pink. It is an organic litmus test for environmental mutagens. We have continued to propagate this variety on The Farm and still disseminate it to citizens' groups and at and environmental conferences in North America.

Conclusion

The Farm was born in a period of rapid social and technological change and upheaval in this country. It existed as a completely communal system for its first 13 years and continues today as a more hybrid communal living situation. The influence of this place and period extended to farthest reaches of the world, and undoubtedly will reach into the future. It is quite impossible to gauge, from this close up, what the most important or truly great contributions have been.

However, what I have spoken about here have been primarily physical accomplishments, and I have not undertaken an examination of the metaphysical, social, behavioral, or psychological advances of this community. Some of this has already been published to a degree, but much remains unrevealed. In its early years, The Farm had a distinctive language idiom that described a unified spiritual view which held people to their highest selves, which made Herculean efforts seem less difficult, and which elevated complete strangers into a realization of the inherently possible. It was an idiom of boundless optimism and good faith.

The experience of childbirth was returned to the place of a sacrament, and customs of midwifery, home birth, bonding, and infant care were recreated which had almost been abandoned in 20th Century America, though very ancient and natural. Children born and reared on The Farm possess a quality that cannot be described, but which can be recognized by each other and by other children from other communal backgrounds. They look and act the same, but they are subtly different. Among other things, they are willing to experiment, willing to fail, willing to try the unconventional, if it might have a chance of bringing about a better world for everyone.

The Farm is more than a place, more than a group. It is a state of mind. It has a palpable kind of grace. It has a Farm flavor of mind. That is a technology too, I suppose, but not one that is as easily delineated.

© 1987 Albert Bates.

NOTES