The Farm

Summertown, Tennessee, USA


From Intentional Community to Ecovillage:
The Farm in the Nineties


Albert Bates


International Communal Studies Association
Annual Meeting, Yad Tabenkin
Seminar Efal, Ramat Efal, Israel
June 1, 1995

© 1995 Albert Bates. All Rights Reserved.


The Farm is an intentional community in Summertown Tennessee, which was founded in 1971 and today has approximately 250 members. During its communal phase, which lasted 13 years, it was called by the Wall St. Journal, "the General Motors of American communes."

At its peak population size of about 1400 in 1980 it operated extensive year-round agriculture programs, business enterprises that were national and international in scope, and a series of satellite offices, projects and farm communities in more than 20 locations. It also carried a substantial, 7-figure, debt burden and this in turn was a factor in the reorganization and downsizing of the 1980s.

I have previously spoken or written on the history of the Farm,2 its economics,3 its technological innovations,4 and its philosophies.5 What I will attempt to do in the next 20 minutes is to provide a brief description of the changes presently underway at The Farm, with a view toward fostering some understanding of one of the indicia of success for intentional community, namely longevity, and how it can be strengthened by the conscious efforts of the group.

To reprise my earlier works, the Farm was conceived in a series of meetings in San Francisco from 1968 through 1970, called Monday Night Class. The leader at these meetings was a teacher at San Francisco State University, Stephen Gaskin. The constructs that grew out of Monday Night Class and into the philosophy of the Farm were comprised of numerous, commonly arrived at assumptions, known as "agreements," the central thrust of which was that great, pure effort must be directed toward harmlessness, right livelihood, right thinking, etc., while maintaining a sense of humor.

In keeping with this thrust, the Farm adopted certain standards of conduct, which were required of all members. These included:

Monday Night Class ¥ Nonviolence: anger, intimidation, subtle coercion (leaning on), and browbeating are all unacceptable. Violators were sanctioned or expelled. It is unnecessary to deal with actual physical violence, because these subtler attributes will always arise first in the undisciplined mind. A well-disciplined group mind will sense troublesome emotions when they arise.

¥ Vegetarianism: no meat, no milk, no eggs, no fish, no leather, no animal products in any form. If it has eyes or tries to get away, it's too high a life form to be sacrificed for human subsistence. As a practical matter this requires supplementing B vitamins and calcium, and paying attention to calorie and amino acid balances. It also requires creating non-exploitative relationships with horses, dogs, bees, and other farm-labor allies.

¥ Voluntary poverty: personal nonacquisitiveness and non-attachment to the material plane. Eager and good-natured willingness to participate in any form of honest labor within your ability.

¥ No social position: there are no lesser or greater parts of the group; each has a vital role to play and should be accorded equal respect for that contribution.

¥ No unhealthy practices: no alcohol, coffee, tobacco, caffeinated teas and soft drinks; no obesity or extreme diets. Control of body lice and other parasites; control of infectious diseases; regulation of the safety of the home and workplace environments. Encouragement of "wellness": natural and preventive medicine, exercise, and wholesome diet. No practices or substances which cause adverse results in external environments, future generations, or any of our relations. The judicious use of allopathic medicine is not to be scorned. Responsible public health practice, research, and reporting is a routine social responsibility.

¥ Fiscal responsibility: thrift; honoring all debts; accepting no personal advantage from fiduciary position; going the extra mile to satisfy clients, customers, or beneficiaries of your trust.

¥ Personal responsibility: being adult; refusing to take advantage of others; adopting a special standard of care towards all children, disabled, or disadvantaged; taking responsibility for everything within your view, from the appropriateness of the activity to the fairness of the vibes.

¥ No blame: Likewise, no praise, which is inverted blame, or blame-by-implication. Shame is blame. Scolding is blame. Chastisement and discussion of fault can be free of blame. Blame is conditioning. Conditioning is a subtle form of coercion, which is a form of violence. Blame is a form of social tyranny.

¥ Group process: Should be fair, unbiased, honest, truthful, kind and fun. To force someone to participate in a process lacking any one of those attributes is a form of group violence against the individual. Individuals should take responsibility for moving group process to a higher plane whenever it wavers into negative terrain.

¥ Honest interest: in the growth and betterment of others; alertness to the causes and consequences of indolence, intolerance, suspicion, fear and other base emotions; compassion and charity rather than condemnation and character assassination.

Evolutionary track

These basic beliefs were the ground rules for the "boot camp" phase of The Farm's evolution, lasting some six to eight years, or from 1967 to 1975.

At the beginning of this period - the first eighteen months - the community of 300 to 500 people was very purist, and "conservative" in its purism. Farming was initially proposed to be all organic; only horses would pull farming implements and provide transportation within the community; bread would be baked fresh from stone ground wheat; and hand labor would be the principal source of energy.

Homes would be simple, in most cases to be constructed almost entirely from hand-harvested, locally-milled, recycled, or throw-away materials.

Nudity was respected, and showerhouses, outhouses, and swimming holes were communal. However, indiscriminate sex was discouraged: marriage and family was encouraged, and divorce was exceedingly rare. To assist these goals, single people were separated into gender-based dormitory tents; visitors and newcomers were warned against "hunting" (dating) for the first several months of residency; having sexual relations was deemed engagement to be married, having children was marriage. Marriage counseling was normal and common to group meetings, as well as a regular function of the midwives' private counseling.

Food was gathered from a common garden and eaten at common meals. Compostable wastes were gathered and processed into topsoil. Other wastes were picked through and minimized, then recycled where possible. Remaining wastes were transformed to fuel, building materials, or fill.

Clothing and other dry goods came from a free dry goods store. No money was exchanged within the community. All occupations were honorable, and each member could select the work of his or her choice and change jobs at will. Where additional assistance was needed, volunteers could be solicited at group meetings, or through bulletin boards and grapevines, and failing that, could be drafted.

Girded with ecumenical spirituality and an abiding sense of the utmost importance in their mission (the slogan on the band bus was "Out to Save the World), the group persevered through its adversities. The first winter was marked by an outbreak of infectious hepatitis from a polluted stream. The second--known as "wheat berry winter"--is remembered as near-famine. But within 4 years The Farm had gained self sufficiency in food production and established a construction company with more than 80 skilled craftsmen. The Farm built schools, greenhouses, dry goods and grocery stores, and automotive, welding, woodworking and machine shops. It established child nutrition and sanitation standards, fire codes, and electrical, heating, lighting, and housing safety standards. Within 5 years it had founded a clinic, laboratory, dispensary, neo-natal ICU, and infirmary with more than 60 newly-licensed medical personnel and wide range of innovative programs in preventive medicine, serving not only The Farm, but the medically underserved area out to a 20 mile radius. The midwifery program, born in 1971, has delivered more than 2000 babies with outcome statistics vastly better than hospitals (Caesarean rates are only 1.8% versus 20% for hospital delivery). In large measure this is due to a comprehensive, family-based support program in prenatal and postnatal education, nutrition, and care. And because of early support and intervention for individual family problems there was and is no poverty, little domestic violence, and virtually no crime within the community.

Scaling up

The boot camp phase was followed by the up-ramp phase, when the Farm earnestly turned its new-found muscle toward (1) the overriding social goal of making a difference in the world, rather than feathering its own nest; (2) coping with the infrastructure needs (water, food, shelter, medical care, external trade) of its burgeoning population of infants, newcomers and visitors; and (3) building a material and industrial base for the much larger community phase which seemed inevitable. In order to accomplish these objectives, several compromises were made that affected the founding idealism.

¥ Horses gave way to tractors and combines.
¥ Fertilizers and narrow-spectrum, short-lived pesticides supplemented organic gardening practices, especially for large field crops.
¥ The stone-ground flour mill gave way to a ton-per-day flour production facility.
¥ Grain bins and elevators were erected to hold a year's production of beans, corn and grain, upwards of 50,000 bushels.
¥ Upsizing of canning, freezing, and food processing facilities to several ton-per-day production levels.
¥ Welding and machine shops, wood shops, repair shops, and scrap metal operations upscaled to meet the demands of this increasingly mechanized operation.
¥ Semi-tractors to transport equipment to winter farming operations in Florida and to carry commerce between satellite farms throughout the U.S.
¥ Earthmoving equipment, trucks, and other heavy diesel equipment reworking the contours of the land for soil conservation, emergency medical access, watershed protection and other purposes, and in furtherance of that, building roads, excavating earth-sheltered building sites, drilling wells, and reshaping the face of The Farm.
¥ Improvements of print shop, security, radio, telephone and other communications systems.
¥ Advance site-map planning and creation of easements for rail lines, commodity elevators, truck scales, aircraft runways; survey of commercial freighters and wharf facilities; and other industrial-scale transport systems.
¥ Upscaling to more comprehensive medical care, legal care, sanitation and laundry systems, organized personnel management, fleet management, energy management, corporate management, and financial planning.

These changes were gradual, but profound. With tens of thousands of visitors, including a great many reporters, it was necessary to abandon group nudity and divide the bathhouse and outhouses into sections for men and women. When it became impractical to feed more than 500 people in a timely fashion in one place, the community kitchen went through several evolutionary stages before being abandoned entirely. With the loss of standard menu planning, preferences in diet and nutrition returned to individual control.

As greater contact with the outside world (work crews traveling daily as far away as Nashville, 75 miles, trucks and buses traveling weekly across the continent) became the rule, many dietary restrictions fell aside. Caffeinated beverages helped drivers stay alert in the early morning and late evening darkness, whether driving a semi-truck on the interstate highway or a combine in the cornfield. Vodka was employed as a medicinal to inhibit contractions in potentially premature baby deliveries and "Near Beer" appeared at parties and festivals.

Standard systems of primary and secondary health care, once entered upon only as a recourse for extreme illnesses or injuries, became the clinical standard for the regular care of a large and diverse population.

As a wide range of skilled and unskilled personnel rose to the level of their own incompetence in turn, ever larger mistakes were made. Some in positions of fiduciary trust took personal advantage from their positions and left with vast sums of embezzled money. Others were simply incompetent, or were unwilling to travel the extra mile to satisfy clients, customers, or beneficiaries, and so eroded reputations, good will, and numerous productive businesses.

At a size of 1200 to 1400 members, most with less than 5 years experience in the counterculture, the Farm became increasingly difficult to manage in keeping with all of the founding tenets of its philosophy. With varying degrees of understanding and practice among newcomers and visitors and a disproportionate ratio of "students" to boot camp "instructors", the group process was often unfair, uncompassionate, and unfun. Hierarchy was resented, but in the hands of the unskilled, principles were misapplied, sometimes cruelly. One example of this phenomenon is the degeneration of the town meeting process, where a handful of disgruntled members were consistently permitted to turn even large meetings into personal podiums for intransigent complaining.

The seeds for large-scale dissatisfaction and dissension were thus sewn into the fabric of The Farm by (1) the failure of the orientation and matriculation process to select out individuals poorly suited for the high ideals of the founders; (2) extremely rapid growth; and (3) the compromise of certain principles (attention to vibes, fiscal responsibility, avoidance of antisocial drugs, devotion to simplicity, elevation of community over individualism, etc.) to satisfy lower order goals of open admission, free visitation, free birthing, free health care, free legal services, free school, free rock and roll band, free food and shelter for all residents, and large scale international charitable activity.

During this later stage (1975-1980) the overriding concern among the core public opinion setters within the Farm was that the experiment must be more open to larger numbers and types of people, be more easily and generally replicable, and be able to exert a greater degree of influence on social, political, and environmental policies of the mainstream culture. This was the excusable source of the compromises that diluted the original vision.

Consequences of growth

The effects of this "opening up" of the permeability between the dominant culture of the outside and the micro-culture of The Farm were mixed. Some effects were helpful to the success of The Farm as a continuing healthy experiment, and some were detrimental, perhaps even fatal (although that judgment is yet premature).

Certainly the cross-fertilization of cultures with Native Americans - particularly the close working relationships with Guatemalan Mayans and Six Nations Iroquois - was salutary. Likewise much was gained by direct and personal experience in the South Bronx, Southern Africa, Bangladesh, and the Caribbean Isles. Rotating people from The Farm through very poor and traditionally oppressed communities, and rotating those people through The Farm, endowed both sides of the communication with invaluable perspectives, realism, purpose, and hope.

Rough and tumble - not to say ruthless - business activity, police harassment and infiltration, and uncritical assimilation of many opinionated, antiquated, superstitious, and untrustworthy individual attitudes were undoubtedly adverse influences. Increasing tolerance of lifestyle variations, including alcohol and tobacco consumption, promiscuous sexual activity and infidelity, and tolerance of exploitative vocations and business lifestyles became adverse influences. Higher living standards brought about by limited commercial success may have also had an adverse affect.

The unraveling of The Farm as an institution characterized the period from 1981 through 1985. The seeds of discontent sewn by the decisions of earlier years bore fruit in the form of generalized distrust of Stephen Gaskin, the Council of Elders, the communal system, and the structural integration of spiritualistic moral standards with business and family life. The result was a generalized disintegration of previous systems and a replacement with an ad-hocracy characterized by small public meetings, wide disagreement, lowest-common-denominator rules of behavior, disparate standards of personal conduct, and a spirit of anarchy. There was lack of agreement about the purpose of The Farm, the ownership of property, standards for uses of mind-altering substances, the relationship of earning capacity or personal wealth to voting and residency, and a host of other very basic, primary elements of community cohesion.

By 1980, the population had swelled to over 1200, but a series of reverses in agriculture and other enterprises led to a scaling back in the early '80s. "Human-scale" for that size parcel of land had been exceeded. Aware of their impact on the surrounding forest, the settlement cut its agricultural acreage by going to more intensive and permacultural farming methods, relocated outlying neighborhoods that impinged too deeply into the hardwood forests, and zoned off more than half of its acreage from all development other than management designed to encourage natural biodiversity. Back on sound financial footing in the early 1990s, The Farm acquired another 800 acres, which were similarly restrictively zoned, and established a charitable conservation land trust with the goal of acquiring and preserving the entire upper Swan watershed.

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