Summertown, Tennessee, USA

Technological Innovation in a Rural Intentional Community, 1971-1987

Albert K. Bates

National Historic Communal Societies Association Annual Meeting
Bishop Hill, Illinois
October 17, 1987

© 1987, 1988, 1995 Albert Bates. All Rights Reserved.

It is one thing to stand outside of a particular culture and try to objectively describe some confined facet of that culture, presumedly measured against a more independent external standard. It is another to live within the culture and describe with familiarity that same facet and indicate how it evolved. As Norman Mailer said, "Facts are nothing without their nuance."1 What is lost to objectivity hopefully can be replaced with the insight that comes with observations over the longer term. I came to The Farm in 1972, one year after it started. I live there still. What I will describe are some highlights of the Farm's technological growth during its first 16 years.

Material sciences necessarily imply certain philosophical assumptions, so it is impossible to adequately examine just the small manifestations without also glimpsing, occasionally, a view of the doctrines which shaped them. It was, and is, a central tenet of The Farm that all things proceed from the Spiritual Plane to the Material Plane. It should also be understood that such geographical juxtapositions are illusory. Yet, it was, and remains, our commonly held view that how you choose to live should be seamless with what you believe in. It should come as no surprise that no one on The Farm developed an advanced design for a nuclear reactor or a Star Wars shield, although we did develop advanced radiation detection equipment and employed satellite communications. No one from The Farm genetically engineered a new species of life, but The Farm did advance the scientific basis for midwifery, experiment with new temperature and mucous methods of birth control, and build the first doppler fetal pulse detector2.

What the 320 long haired hippies who started The Farm came to Tennessee believing in was clean air, healthy babies, honest work, nonviolence, safe energy, cheap transportation, and rock and roll. All of these ideals remain today, though, as one might expect, a good many others came and went.3


The Farm was born as a child of the Summer of Love, an exodus of the faithful from the Holy but Hung-Up Hashbury to a groovier place to be. At its peak, the Pine-to-Panhandle district of San Francisco had such a concentration of hippies4 vibing in harmony that curious strangers who wandered in would step out of their shoes and disappear into the free food, free love, free music scene, leaving promising careers, wealth, family and friends without ever looking back.5 It had "the juice."6 It attracted the curious from all over North America and beyond.

As the Haight Ashbury scene degenerated in speed, heroin, rip-off artists and tourism, Stephen Gaskin's Monday Night Class called the faithful to rally and hold together.7 A long line of schoolbuses, rebuilt in handcrafted, shingled, painted, welded, gypsy caravan style, after a year on the road, landed the tribe in Tennessee.8 There the original settlers still had such incredible reserves of free hippie spirit that, for five or ten years, curious visitors who came from all over the world would leave their car keys at the gate and wander off into the fields of corn, leaving promising careers, wealth, family and friends without ever looking back. It had "the juice."

How juice moves from place to place and time to time would be an interesting exploration in its own right. What I am describing here is the progression of physical artifacts that appeared as that wave moved through The Farm between 1971 and 1987. The Farm grew from a few hundred early settlers to a peak population of around 1400 in 1980, with around 4,000 having lived there at one time or another in the first ten years.

Owing to the decline of the economic basis for commercial agriculture and a massive farming debt, the failure of several diverse business ventures, a lack of good management and a loss of faith in Stephen Gaskin, there was a large exodus of members in the early 1980s.9 The Farm reorganized its communal economy in 1983, permitting its members for the first time the privilege of accumulating property, although the main wealth of The Farm is still held communally. The Farm today numbers about 280 people, living on 1750 acres. It has its own roads, water system, school, clinic, grocery store, repair shops, recreation facilities and government. Its principal businesses are printing and publishing, manufacture of electronic instruments, construction, mail order textiles and specialty food products.

The first settlers arrived to very primitive conditions: the first land the caravan settled was steep hillside covered with blackjack oak and poison ivy. That Fall they picked watercress from a polluted stream and half of the settlers came down with infectious hepatitis.

Apart from the schoolbuses and vans, houses or structures of any kind were almost non-existent. The collective cash of the group had been spent for a down payment on the land and on gasoline to get there.

A land dispute had been going on between the neighbors before the hippies got there, and as soon as the buses had descended into the woods, the neighbor that owned the road into and out of the property closed it, trapping all the vehicles inside.

There was no phone, no electricity, very little food, no money, a few new babies, with more on the way, and everyone sick and turning yellow. In other words, it was not a great deal unlike the Haight Ashbury or the East Village. This was the Woodstock Nation. It was undeveloped woodland out at the end of a dirt road, 35 miles from the nearest hospital and 15 miles from the nearest incorporated town. Still, it had its enduring features. Most importantly, it was ours.


The baseline for dwellings on The Farm in the early days of settlement was schoolbuses. Bus architecture was an artform as much as a science. But buses tended to be cold when they were covered with snow, as did surplus army tents of Korean War vintage, slabwood shelters, and polyvinyl lean-tos. With no money to buy materials for buildings, The Farm soon developed a distinctive style of touses and hents. Touses and hents were army tents that had scrapwood floors, frame sides, styrofoam insulation, and even rusty tin roofs, using materials acquired from buses, dumps and salvage jobs.10

The Cave House was an experiment in semi-underground living, with a schoolbus buried on the North, West and East sides and exposed on the South. A ferrocement cave extended off of the bus to provide a living room large enough to stand up in, and a solar heat-collecting greenhouse was added to that wing.

The Sun house was another passive solar house built on a south facing slope, with three stories of well-windowed walls facing south, enclosed by deciduous trees that provided shade from the summer sun. The Canned Heat house was the first experiment in superinsulated, double envelope design, with a regulated pattern of airflow that minimized heat loss. Twenty-seven other residential dwellings built on The Farm between 1974 and 1978 incorporated these two inexpensive and cost-effective elements, direct solar gain and superinsulation.11

These on-the-Farm experiments, mostly built with recycled building materials, led to the first commercial solar house which was constructed for a neighbor, and which employed all of the best features in passive solar design. It had a double-paned greenhouse, clerestory windows to the South, earth berm to the North, a Trombe wall, a gravel bed heat storage system that cycled hot air from the greenhouse, an active hot-air water heating system, an active hot-water swimming pool heating system, a "Persian air conditioner" which carried cool air into the house from underground, drawn by turbines on the roof, and the thermal flywheel, superinsulating effect of massive brickmasonry throughout. The design of this 1400 sq.ft. house, which was built for $55,000 in 1979, has since been widely replicated and adapted elsewhere.12

The success of this venture led to a number of other successful commercial building projects, such as a restored historic log cabin with a solar heating envelope, the solar Victorian mansion built for actress Pam Dawber13 and a computer-regulated solar home in Nashville.

In 1978, The Farm began construction of its solar school, which is the largest building on The Farm to date, and to our knowledge the largest passive solar building in the State. The 6,000 square foot, 10-room school is made of recycled concrete block and brick with a sawtooth-shaped roof. Each of the classrooms has a large, southfacing window extending from the 8-foot level to the 16-foot ceiling. Direct solar gain heats the facing wall, which is surfaced with an elm-green chalkboard, providing heat collection in the winter. A roof overhang shields the large clerestory windows from the higher-angled summer sun.14

One other area of interest that developed along with solar houses was an interest in solar water heating systems. The Farm's first experiments in solar water heating were simple devices such as black pipe or black-painted tanks put up on rooftops. Adding glass or vinyl covers increased the heat retention, as did a reflective backing such as aluminum foil. This led to a commercial product known as The Peach, which was designed, manufactured and sold by The Farm's business, Solar Energy Works. The Peach was an insulated water tank in a parabolic collector made of specially extruded foam, glazed with transparent Kalwall. Some early prototypes of The Peach even had solar-cell activated light sensors, which would cover up the tank with an insulating blanket at night or on cloudy days.

The Farm also constructed a 200 cubic foot walk-in solar dehydrator for drying fruits and herbs, which has now operated for ten years with little or no maintenance.15

Energy Systems

The baseline energy systems were those brought on the schoolbuses: gasoline motors, kerosene lamps, firewood heating stoves, propane cooking stoves, and some limited electricity, mostly limited to the bus batteries. The prime source of energy was what we called "monkey power." If a bus got stuck in the mud, the driver would climb out and yell, "Monkeeeeeeeezzz!", and pretty soon 30 or 40 people would be leaning their monkeys into the rear end of the bus.

Direct current lighting systems were one of the first innovative energy technologies. Buses were cannibalized to make houses, big pickup trucks, big flatbeds, tank trucks, and tractor-haulers. Eventually their electric lighting systems also came to be used inside the handmade homes. As fires claimed some of the less safe early structures, such as surplus army tents and scrapwood cabins, kerosine lighting was gradually replaced by strings of 6-volt and 12-volt bulbs, wired to a car battery.

These batteries were at first recharged by rotating them through a car, bus or truck being used for work. Then it became preferable to have two 12-volt batteries for rotation, so that both the car and the house always had starting power and the battery didn't get run down completely. We used to buy our 12-volt batteries second hand for $8 apiece. Most houses were wired with three-strand inside phone wiring. Eventually we started refurbishing large, 2-volt telephone company batteries, which were ideal for home power systems. They were wired up in 12-volt series. To recharge everyone's DC-powered systems, The Farm electric crew ran trickle charge lines from a central AC power converter. Old external phone wire, 2-strand copper coated, was run through the woods all over The Farm. At one time this one trickle charge station fed more than 100 households. Much of the wiring still remains, though it is no longer operational.16

With the larger battery systems providing significant amounts of power, new houses were constructed with DC wiring built into the walls. Lights, TVs, stereo tape players, blenders, fans, and CB radios all ran off DC power. The disadvantages were that these systems lacked the amperage to run refrigeration, heating, air conditioning or large appliances. The advantages were that they were fireproof, kidproof, easy to repair, and very inexpensive.

The central trickle charging system was always viewed as an inefficient, temporary way to recharge home batteries. DC generation experiments went on for some twelve years, at one time managed by a full-time crew of three to five men and women. Experiments included gas generators, which had the disadvantages of noise, expense, and smell; pedal power, which worked well if you were willing to put in the hours on a stationary bicycle that you had to peddle to run a television; and a number of wind, hydro and solar power experiments.

The first windmill experiment was a small, cloth-bladed, four-bladed propellor which drove a pulley belted to a car alternator. This four-foot machine produced a measurable but minimal current, and so was scaled up to a larger-span 20-foot cloth-bladed machine. The larger machine proved unmanageable in normal 10 mph winds, so the next experiment was with bicycle parts and metal blades. This produced the first really successful wind generator, which provided power for the machine shop.17 A few aborted attempts were made to scale this up using car transmissions mounted on steel poles, Savonious rotors, and other ideas, but eventually we just went out and bought a Bergey 1000 watt Generator and mounted it on a 60-foot tower.18 This windmill charged a 12-volt system that provided some of the power for the production complex at Solar Electronics, which included The Farm's ham radio base station, the electronics research center, and the electronic instrument assembly lines.19

With funding from international development grants, the electronics crew experimented with a Bergey-Solarex hybrid system using both wind and photovoltaic (direct-solar) power with integrated controllers backing the system up to the TVA grid, rather than storing the power in batteries. The advantage of this was that less power was lost in storage and by running the meter backwards, we were able to earn money from TVA for producing power. This was one of our first interactions with TVA's research engineering branch and probably contributed to our later getting the contract to construct a completely photovoltaic power system for their Muscle Shoals Visitors Center. The solar array we constructed for TVA had sufficient output to power 20 or 30 Farm homes and at the time was the sixth largest all-solar power station in the world, although that mark was soon eclipsed and today that array is probably down around the sixtieth largest.20 It is still running, and should be good for a century or more.

There were also a number of micro-hydro experiments, starting with a 2-inch overshot wheel that produced less than one horsepower; the Baker-Cobb magnetic wheel, which doubled as both a waterwheel and its own magnetic generator and provided lights for the house of a neighbor; and a series of micro-hydro surveys and engineering plans, only one of which led to the installation of a working water turbine, producing about 1 kilowatt.

Solar electric power was always of interest on The Farm, since nuclear power seemed so evil and avoidable.21 Our first experiments with solar power were small, one-cell experiments with radios and fans. Since the high cost of photovoltaics is tied to the high cost for the silicon crystal cells, we designed and built a portable, concentrating array that focused light by means of a series of mirrored surfaces arranged like sawteeth. This array was first demonstrated publicly at the opening of the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant when it provided all of the power used on the stage for an antinuke concert. The musicians liked at the clear fidelity of the DC-sound system that was developed to use with the array. The Department of Energy under Jimmy Carter subsequently provided funding for a study to determine the potential value of mirror concentrators in low energy photovoltaic applications. A collapsible, portable, high density array was developed and displayed at the 1982 Worlds Fair.22 Our study indicated that the value of mirrored concentrators was not in increasing power capacity, which is fixed by the cell's specifications, but in maximizing available daylight, so that these generators could put out maximum output even when the sky was cloudy.

The Farm displayed three separate photovoltaic array designs at the 1982 Worlds Fair. All of these were part of an exhibit called "Appropriate Community Technology." We assisted the Knoxville Community Design Center in taking a Victorian House that was at the Fair site and converting it into a showcase for appropriate energy technologies. One Farm-built array powered a communications module that delivered a taped message to visitors. Another, the concentrating array described before, recharged a public address and music system's batteries. The third was part of the solar powered car, which I'll get to shortly.

As I mentioned, we saw the principal barrier to solar electricity as the high cost of the silicon crystal cells. Our experiments with concentrating and high density arrays, polyamorphous crystal arrays, and low power applications were aimed at delivering high yield for low cost. We also went into the photovoltaic distribution business, and were able to sell standard cell arrays at dealer discount prices and also to acquire scrap or defective cell parts from the manufacturers which we repaired and resold inexpensively. This venture was not one of our commercial successes, but did assist in getting solar cell technology out around the world fairly rapidly.

Food and Agriculture

The baseline for food systems on The Farm was basic vegetarian fare, cooked in the schoolbuses. One of the main buildings on The Farm was the community kitchen, which supplemented the home kitchens and allowed people to congregate at breakfast and lunch and to work more efficiently.

Initially the plan was to grow everything organically, using horses, and the first investment in farming was a team of Belgian mares. But as actual experience with farmwork was obtained and the population of The Farm jumped from 350 to 500 to 1000 to 1200, the sense of growing more food more efficiently overtook romantic notions of preindustrial farming.

The protein requirements we had were based upon a rather revolutionary discovery that is still relatively unappreciated by the world at large. We were vegetarians mostly for moral and health reasons, being pacifists and yogis. We approached vegetarianism scientifically, however.23 What we learned24 was that the humble soybean has a better approximation of the eight essential amino acids needed by humans than does animal meat, or eggs, or milk. The human amino acid that is weakest in soybeans is lysine, which can be gotten by having a balance of grains and greens with your beans, although our farming crew also experimented with growing hybrids of high lysine corn.

The second part of the soybean equation is that we soon learned that using normal Tennessee farming methods we could get 40 bushels of soybeans from an acre of land. That's more than a ton of beans per acre. The same acre in cattle or dairy cows would yield around 300 pounds of beef or 1000 gallons of milk per year. Pound for protein pound, you could feed 10 times as many people, much more inexpensively, eating the soybeans directly rather than feeding them to cattle.

With soy as the principal source of protein for 1200 people, we naturally developed an interest in varieties of soyfoods.25 After all, boiled soybeans are a real challenge. You have to boil a soybean about 8 hours before it becomes palatable.26 With a pressure cooker, you can reduce the boiling time to around an hour, but the beans don't become really tasty until you can squish them on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. We didn't have a lot of pressure cookers when we first started out, so we used to have what was called the Bean Watch at the Community Kitchen. Households, which were usually 16 x 32 army tents of 8-10 men and women, would take turns sending delegates to the kitchen to watch the giant beanpots as they boiled all night.

We also made soymilk by grinding the wet beans and skimming the hulls. The thick white milk was sweetened, lightly salted, and consumed fresh, or made into yogurt, ice cream or tofu. We added vitamin B-12 to the milk because vegetarians generally don't get enough B-12. Ninety percent of the milk was made into that most versatile of soyfoods, tofu.27 Tofu is the curdled solids that rise when you add vinegar or Nigari to hot soymilk. You press the curds in a linen cloth or large press to extract the curdling agent and water and then chill the pressed product, which is a cottage cheese-like substance, with a very bland taste. The Farm's first registered patent was for a cylindrical tofu press.

After the milk is boiled and skimmed and curdled, what is left is a grainy stew of bean hulls which the Japanese call "okara." Okara doesn't look real appetizing, but it turns out it has a lot of good protein too, and we hated to waste it. We tried drying it and making it into new kinds of food. We succeeded in making okara flour, okara granola, okara horse feed, and okara hamburgers. One of my personal favorites is the spicy sausage which is made from okara mixed with fresh herbs, dry roasted, and packed into tin cans. We called this "soysage" and in recent years it has found its way into a number of health food stores, much of it produced by people who once lived on The Farm or who visited our soy dairy.

Another way of eating soybeans which, like tofu, does not involve long boiling, is by fermenting the beans with a starter innoculum, Rhizopus oligosporus, to make tempeh. This fermentation process originated centuries ago in Indonesia, where soybeans were wrapped in banana leaves and left out in the warm sun to ferment. We now use large walk-in, climate controlled, stainless steel incubators to make tempeh on The Farm, although at one time we made it on shelves above woodstoves in army tents and schoolbuses. After 18 to 20 hours of controlled fermentation, the innoculum completely digests the beans and forms a solid cake which has a white exterior. The cake is sliced and fried, baked, boiled, stewed, or whatever, and produces a flavorful, high protein main dish with a taste something like mushrooms.28 When we began experimenting with tempeh at the soy dairy, innoculum was not commercially available and we had to get it from scientists. One of the cottage industries of The Farm today is the production of pure innoculum for tempeh. We are currently the world's largest commercial source and sell tempeh innoculum to commercial growers all over North America, Europe and Asia. Our principal American competitors are all people who learned their craft at The Farm.

Other fermented soybean projects we have tried I will just list. We made miso at the community scale production level, using large oak barrels, until 1984. We experimented with ontjom, sufu, and natto but never developed a taste for them. We also developed other new tempehs, applying the Rhizopus culture to several different grains and beans, and succeeded in producing good tasting and healthful tempeh cakes from peanuts, wheat, barley, soy grits, rice, lentils, split peas, great northerns, pintos, kidney beans and soybean okara. We got up to commercial scale production on okara tempeh at one point.29

One of the most successful of our various food inventions was what we called Ice Bean, which is an ice cream made from soymilk or blended tofu. Many people are familiar with Tofutti, but may not know that it had its humble origins in Summertown, Tennessee in the early 1970s. While we have nothing to do with Tofutti, we did sell our original ice cream techniques to Barracini Foods some years ago, after a decade of modest commercial success with Ice Bean, and they produce a variety of soy ice creams distributed by Haagen Daz which are still made in our plant in Memphis using The Farm's recipes and technical people. We also still make a soy frogurt, or frozen yogurt desert, that I haven't seen in Giant Foods yet, but maybe some day soon.

Our latest venture into commercial soyfoods is Bert and Ray's Tofu Cheesecakes, chocolate chip or cherry. They are produced on The Farm, in our soy dairy and bakery facility.30

Our agricultural technology was not greatly different from the large scale agricultural methods of our time. At first we planned to grow everything organically, but we gradually developed some moderate use of phosphate fertilizers and pesticides. We so avoided animal products at the beginning that we abstained from honey, not wanting to exploit bees as though they were 6 legged cows. About the time we got into using pesticides, principally out of our experience with winter farming in Homestead, Florida, but also out of concern for the neighbors, we also got into beekeeping. We hoped that the bees would keep us honest, because if we used any broad spectrum or lingering pest controls, it would affect the bees. They were our miner's canary. We took them down to Florida in the winter when we trucked all the farming equipment down, and brought them back up to Tennessee in the spring.

We were never entirely dependent on chemical farming, and much of our soil was replenished by a large scale composting operation. We gathered organic garbage from all the households and trucked it out to a three-acre area where it was composted using horses to turn it and and a skiploader to cover it with horse manure and sawdust. Since we stopped commercial growing and just started growing for ourselves, we have once again become almost entirely organic.

As we became more involved nationally and internationally helping indigenous peoples survive in traditional ways, we turned some of our agricultural skills to variety trials in Tennessee, Guatemala, and Southern Africa. We tested 20 varieties of soybeans from Mexico at altitudes as high as 7,200 feet and with varying photoresponse periods. We worked with Rodale Research in variety trials on grain amaranth, a balanced protein crop that was a Central American staple before the Spanish Conquest. We also studied and ran trials on Quinoa and Winged Beans. The results of this work was published by the United Nations.31

The Farm's Third World charitable work, and its Plenty projects, would also be a worthwhile subject to explore, but for now I will simply say that many of the soy dairy techniques developed on The Farm were quickly exported to some of the poorest areas on the planet are were immediately implemented in feeding large numbers of people inexpensively, and still do, to this day.32