The food businesses they run are at the forefront of healthful eating. They produce tofu, tempeh and soymilk; sell mushroom spawn to growers of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms; publish vegetarian cookbooks; and run a mail-order business that sells hard-to-find vegetarian foods. They¹ve been instrumental in introducing soyfoods to the United States, as well as using them to assist people in developing nations. Their medical clinic has proven the safety and cost-effectiveness of traditional midwifery, which is slowly making a comeback in the United States; they host cutting-edge conferences on such topics as organic gardening, natural healing and solar technology; and their children have been the subject of medical research that has laid to rest any fears that a vegan diet is inappropriate for growing children.
Who are these people who have managed to live so well on so little while contributing so much to vegetarians and others worldwide? In truth, they¹re a bunch of aging hippies. This community, so far ahead of its time, is the Farm, an experiment in communal living that began in 1971 when most of the current residents were still college students in San Francisco.
They¹ve come a long way since arriving here on what was, unquestionably, a road less traveled. Their pilgrimage began with Monday Night Class, a course in the Experimental College at San Francisco State University taught by an English literature instructor named Stephen Gaskin. Gaskin¹s class, designed to inspire students who might otherwise become caught up in the tumult of the late 60s and drop out, was a wide-ranging survey of religion, spirituality and psychology. At its peak, the class attracted as many as 1,500 people, many of whom were not students.
With Gaskinwho was about 10 years older than his studentsas the charismatic leader, the group was developing a philosophy of life that would take them far from the Bay Area, both physically and spiritually. At the center of this philosophy was a commitment to changing what the group members saw as an unfair, violent society. ³We felt like a chosen generation sparked with a vision,² says Peter Schweitzer, a founding member of the Farm and executive director of Plenty, the Farm¹s charitable relief organization. ³We felt: It¹s up to us. We don¹t have to wait for society to get sane. If you want to change the world, you¹ve got to change yourself, then get together with others and see what you can do. Every generation has another crack at it.² Love, tolerance and compassion were the tenets of Monday Night Class, and the participants lived their message by embracing non-violence and vegetarianism.²
³We were trying to toss out the old social structures we grew up with and put together something that made more sense for us and for our children in the future in terms of relationships with each other, the Earth and other people. Some way that wasn¹t wasteful of resources, was more understanding and tolerant, that helped people make a living that was sustainable,² recalls Cynthia Holzapfel, a member since the Farm¹s early years and managing editor of the Book Publishing Company, based on the Farm.
In 1969, Gaskin went on a speaking tour of liberal churches across the country and invited along any members of the class who cared to join him. He traveled in the converted school bus that was his home, and many of his students followed suit, purchasing and converting used school buses. Others joined along the way, until there were 300 people in the motley assortment of flamboyantly painted buses, Seven months and 7,000 miles later, they returned to San Francisco, but the group didn¹t want to split up. Instead, they decided to return to Nashville and find a place where they could settle together. Why there? ³Friendly people, cheap land,² explains Louise Hagler, a member since the Farm¹s early years and author of numerous vegetarian cookbooks published by the Book Publishing Company.
In 1971, the caravan again hit the road. When it reached Tennessee, the group rented a tract of land in Lewis County, one of the poorest in the state, and began farming in order to feed themselves and share food with hungry people in the local area. Here, the hard times began: Bad weather, diminishing supplies and some hostile neighbors combined to make the first few months difficult. ³We were a bunch of 20-year-olds who didn¹t know how to take care of ourselves,² says Holzapfel. But they learned quickly.
These young, urban hippies were determined to survive and thrive on a farm in the rural south.
Early on, the Farm set up the Gate, a check-in office at the entrance, for security. Anyone who wanted to come in to visit or live was welcome, but runaways, fugitives and people who seemed hostile or deranged were turned away. Those who entered had to agree not to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, eat meat, use weapons or be violent in any way. If they chose to stay, they had to turn over all of their money and property to the community bank except for tools, musical instruments and clothes. In return, they received free vegan meals, housing and medical care. But most attractive of all, they were part of a community dedicated to living a spiritually meaningful life. Every week, the community met for Sunday Morning Services, led by Gaskin, at which they meditated together and discussed spiritual matters.
The rest of the week, they worked hard; these young, college-educated, urban hippies were determined not just to survive but to thrive on a farm in the rural South. Through trial and error, they taught themselves farming, carpentry and other trade skills, and over the years their hard work and courtesy won the friendship of the neighbors. Many local farmers had watched their own children move away rather than tend their families¹ land for another generation, and they appreciated these young people¹s enthusiasm. Vernon Giles, the Summertown postmaster, remembers, ³When they first came in, being from out of town, people were skeptical.² But pretty soon, he says, ³everyone got along with them very well.²
A couple of years later, a 1,000-acre tract of land became available next door to the land the community was renting. They purchased it for $70 per acre, using the inheritances several members had put into the community bank, then began the daunting task of constructing a village. It was a remarkable venture: They needed to build houses and roads, and provide a water system, electricity and phones. They built and staffed a school, a radio station, a soy dairy and a medical clinic. Everyone who could work did, joining whatever work crews were most in need of their skills or, if they had none, more eager hands.
The housing was primitive in these early years. At first people lived in tents and buses; gradually, Farm work crews built simple homes made of scavenged materials from torn-down buildings in nearby towns, but for up to 10 years they had no running water and only limited battery-powered lighting. People lived in enormous households of 20 or more, and the children were raised like brothers and sisters, tended in large groups and even wet nursed by one another¹s mothers. People moved around frequently, trying out different groups as housing companions. And all the while, 10,000 hippies from around the world were pouring in each year, most just to visit but some to stay. When 750 more acres of land adjacent to the original Farm came up for sale, the members quickly snapped it up, providing more space for their burgeoning community.
But the Farm members¹ mission was more than just to build a community. They wanted to save the world. With its own basic needs for food and shelter barely met, the Farm sent volunteers to help with disaster relief after an Alabama tornado in 1974, This was the beginning of Plenty, the Farm¹s charitable relief and development agency. When an earthquake hit Guatemala in 1976, Plenty sent a construction crew to help rebuild the homes of poor Mayans, as well as provide health care, food and a system for ensuring a clean water supply. The volunteers taught the Mayans basic carpentry skills and even helped set up the first native-language radio station in the country. They also found a strain of soybeans that thrived in the local soil, and helped build a soy dairy that still produces tofu, soymilk and soy ice cream.
After the experience in Guatemala, Plenty made soy technology a regular part of its strategy for assisting people in developing countries. Other relief agencies have followed Plenty¹s lead, discovering that raising soybeans for soyfoods is one of
routes out of starvation and into self-sufficiency. Plenty also helped those in need here in the United States, setting up an organic farming program at the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, for example, and an ambulance service in the south Bronx.
As the Farm reached out to help others around the world, the community back home was beginning to founder. By 1980, the population had risen to about 1,500, and resources were stretched as far as they could go. Residents went through some terribly lean times, such as the ³wheat berry winter² when they were too poor to pay anyone to grind their wheat berries into flour and ate them, cooked but without seasoning, day in and day out.
Some members took comfort in the fact that they were still better off than much of the rest of the world, but others had a harder time accepting the situation. Though they weren¹t unhealthy, people were beginning to tire of all the deprivation. The children of the Farm¹s founders were approaching their teen years and wanted more space and privacy. The adults were frustrated by the difficulty of attaining basic amenities, like shoes for their children and eyeglasses. They were also tired of some of the compromises they had to make because of decisions made by a board of directors that was partly elected and partly appointed by Gaskinwatching money go to Guatemala, for example, when they were still waiting for running water in their homes. ³There was so much built in stupidity and inefficiency, recalls Neal Bloomfield, a long-time resident who now owns a construction company, voicing a common appraisal of the results of the group decision-making.
The failure of some of the Farm¹s great plans was costing them more money and energy than they could afford. Ironically, one of their greatest failings was farming. This was due, in part, to timing: The Farm was attempting to break into a market increasingly dominated by largescale corporate farms. Even long-standing family farms could not compete, let alone a low-tech, learn-as-you-go operation like the Farm. In 1978, after a few years of terrible financial losses, the Farm decided to keep its agricultural operations smallscale and organic.
The population at the Farm began to decline. Those who remained wanted more control over their lives and their pocketbooks. ³There was a shift from the sense of idealism in the 70s to the materialism of the 80s,² recalls Holzapfel. The grumbling and discontent escalated, as did the Farm¹s debt; the community owed $1,000,000 to local banks and merchants. Gaskin, aware of the community¹s emerging insistence on a more democratic form of governance, stepped aside, saying that his students had outgrown their need for a teacher. A new board of directors was elected and given the job of figuring out how to get the community into the black and satisfy members¹ needs for more control.
In 1983, after much research and soul searching, the board decided the Farm should cease being a commune and become a cooperative instead. Under this new arrangement, members would still hold the land in common but they could earn and spend their own money. Food and medical care would no longer be free, and members would pay monthly dues in order to pay off the community¹s debt and maintain community property, such as roads and utilities. All adult members would ratify each year¹s budget and decide other major issues affecting the community.
In the wake of this metamorphosis, known as the Changeover, more people left; by 1986 only 400 residents remained. ³It was like an enormous divorce, a crisis of trust, a time of great soul searching,² recalls founding member Warren Jefferson. Many of the people who left were bitter, feeling they had put everything into the community and were left with nothing. Many of those who remained were adrift for awhile too. What would they do to support themselves? They had no cars, no respectable clothes, and they were stuck in the poorest county in Tennessee during an economic downturn.
But innovation, ever a feature of life on the Farm, came into play again. The community sold off some of its communal assets to settle its debt, including Ice Bean, the first nondairy ice cream produced in the United States. Over the next three years, the Farm managed to pay off all its creditors. Many of the community¹s businesses were taken over by members, who continued to operate on the Farm and reimbursed the collective with part of the profits they earned as private businesses.
The soy dairy, begun in order to feed thousands of hungry hippies, has been revived as the Farm Soy Company by founding residents Barbara and Tom Elliott, who today churn out 1,600 pounds of tofu and 10 to 15 gallons of soymilk daily with the help of two part-time employees and cleaning help from four teenagers. The Tempeh Lab, which pioneered U.S. production of this soyfood in 1974, is now owned by Cynthia Bates, who provides tempeh culture to individuals and businesses that make tempeh worldwide. Mushroompeople, owned by Frank Michaels, who runs his company with the help of five part-time employees, sells shiitake mushrooms locally and does a brisk mail-order business providing mushroom spawn and directions for growing gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, including shiitakes, maitakes, oysters, morels and reishis.
The community¹s Book Publishing Company, which pays a staff of seven fulltime and four part-time Farm members, has made these foods and vegetarian cooking accessible to the mainstream. The company also publishes information on midwifery and the nutritional aspects of a vegetarian diet. The Mail Order Catalog, owned by Cynthia and Bob Holzapfel, is a source of vegetarian foods that are difficult to obtain outside major metropolitan areas.
The medical clinic, started in 1973 by a group of Farm women who taught themselves how to deliver babies, has shown the world that traditional midwifery is safe. Over the past 24 years, the clinic has delivered 1888 babies for Farm mothers and local women, 1796 of them at home, their Cesarean section rate is 1.7 percent (the natural average is 22.3 percent) they¹ve had no maternal fatalities and the infant mortality rate is 3.7 per 1,000 (the national average is 8.3 per 1,000). The midwives are currently in the process of establishing and implementing a certification program for traditional midwives.
The conferences that are held at the Farm¹s Ecovillage represent cutting-edge work in many fields: organic and biodynamic gardening, solar energy, straw-bale house construction, natural healing, economic development and more. The conference center where participants eat serves healthful vegan food. The solar school provides the community¹s children with a state-approved education along with a thorough grounding in art, woodworking, computers, music and auto mechanics.
Now that the Farm is doing well, it is still managing to do good. Plenty¹s educational and outreach work continues to assist people both at home and abroad. And environmental lawyer Albert Bates runs the Natural Rights Center, a non-profit environmental law project that won several cases for U.S. soldiers who contracted various cancers after witnessing nuclear tests or being exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Today, the Farm owns its land outright, and everyone manages to pay dues, and feed and clothe the children. Their homes are still very modest by most standards, but members are able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle on very little.
Barbara and Neal Bloomfield and their three children, for example, live in a six-bedroom house that once housed five families. Some of the flooring still has the red and yellow lines of the high school gymnasium it came from; the dishes in the kitchen are an assortment of unmatched items; and many of the boards on the front porch are split or rotting. But it¹s a cozy home, especially when the wood stove is on and the neighbors drop by, and there¹s room enough that Barbaraa cookbook authorruns a bed and breakfast for visitors and welcomes the clinic¹s clients to birth their babies in one of the bedrooms if they can¹t birth them at their own homes.
Today, the Farm has about 185 residents. Roughly half of them are teenagers who provide living proof that a vegan diet is healthy for children. A peer-reviewed study published in the scientific journal Pediatrics (September 1989) assessed the height and weight of 404 vegan children on the Farm and found that by age 10, they were, on average, just 0.7 centimeters shorter (about 0.5 inches) and 1.1 kilogram lighter (about 2.4 pounds) than the reference population of the National Center for Health Statistics, figures that are considered perfectly normal.
These children, who have spent their entire lives on the Farm, are also quite normal in their enthusiasm for everything from pick-up basketball and rock music to videos and computer games. They¹re not deprived on any of these counts. But they have adopted the values their parents sought to instill. If anything, most of them are more idealisticand more strict about their vegan dietthan their parents, some of them regarding their parents¹ decision to change from a commune to a cooperative as a sell-out.
They also appreciate the safety and tranquility of the Farm. Floyd Hagler, born on the Farm 15 years ago, is typical of many of his peers. He has taken many trips away from home and plans to leave when he¹s a little older. But, he says, ³I always want to come back here. It¹s great. Everything¹s green, there are no big buildings, and you don¹t have to smell smog and pollution all the time.²
Floyd and his friends are the Farm¹s best hope for continuing to thrive into the next century. The adults, who are in their 40s and early 50s, are in good health. But as they look to the future, some important questions remain unanswered: Who will do the hard physical work required to maintain the community when they are no longer able to? And how will they support themselves when they¹re no longer able to earn a salary? After years of poverty, their modest incomes aren¹t enough to cover savings for their retirement years.
But this is not to say that Farm members haven¹t invested in their future. Many expect that their children will come and settle here someday when they have children of their own. Already, two adults who grew up on the Farmsome of the first Farm babieshave returned with spouses and children of their own, and many of the younger Farm children have expressed their intention to come back after they¹ve had a chance to travel for a while. This sense of dedication to the community is the Farm¹s savings plan. Farm members are optimistic that both the children and the community they¹ve nourished for so long will carry them through their golden years. ³We figure this is our security,² says Kathryn Hutchens, gesturing to the friends who surround her. ³We¹ll be here forever. It will become our retirement community. ³
Where are they now?
WORK ON THE FARM: Jeffrey worked on the construction crew and started the Farm radio station, WUTZ; Marilyn founded and taught at the Farm school.
WHY LEFT: Needed to earn more to support their children.
WHERE THEY ARE NOW: Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
WORK SINCE: Jeffrey is an Internet service provider and author of several books, including The Big Dummies¹ Guide to CB Radio (Book Publishing Company, 1976,1984), which has sold 1,300,000 copies and has been translated into six languages. Marilyn is a teacher.
KIDS: 20,17 and 12, all born on the Farm.
QUOTE: ³The teachings that we learned there still work. We haven¹t given up our basic philosophy.²Jeffrey
WORK ON THE FARM: Nancy drove a tractor and worked as a nurse. Ben was the ambulance service dispatcher in Tennessee and the south Bronx.
WHY LEFT: So Ben could go to medical schools.
WHERE THEY ARE NOW: Placerville, Calif.
WORK SINCE: Nancy is a registered nurse and Ben is an emergency-room physician in the county hospital.
KIDS: 17, 14 and 12, all born on the Farm .
QUOTE: ³We¹re still vegetarian and we¹re trying to do a lot of community service, [trying to be] kind and good to people and trying to leave a positive mark instead of a negative one on people and the environment.²Nancy
WORK ON THE FARM: Mark was art director of the Book Publishing Company. Laurie was Gate secretary, a receptionist at the clinic, and sold crafts and vegetables in a store outside the Farm.
WHY LEFT: They had tired of the level of self-sacrifice.
WHERE THEY ARE NOW: Alameda, Calif.
WORK SINCE: Mark is a software designer, creating children1s educational CDROMs for Living Books, a Random House/Broderbund company. Laurie makes hats and is writing a pamphlet on sexuality and fertility issues.
KIDS: 21, 19 and 13, first two born on the Farm.
QUOTES: ³I¹m still trying to make a difference. l got into [CD-ROMs for kids] because I wanted to make a difference in the world of education.²Mark
WORK ON THE FARM: Farming crew, in Tennessee and Guatemala. Leslie also taught Spanish at the Farm school.
WHY LEFT: Weren¹t able to earn enough money to support themselves.
WHERE THEY ARE NOW: Lutherville, Md.
WORK SINCE: Darryl spent nine years in Africa working for Catholic Relief Services. Leslie taught at the international schools. Now Darryl is senior analyst for the Africa region for Catholic Relief Services. Leslie runs a nursery school.
KIDS: 19, 17 and 1 5. One born in Guatemala. one adopted in Guatemala and one born on the Farm.
QUOTE: ³I miss a lot of things about the Farm. l feel a real bond with the people there still.²Leslie
WORK ON THE FARM: Gate crew, construction crew, bookkeeper for Farm Foods .
WHY LEFT: In reaction to the dissension and lack of direction before the Changeover .
WHERE HE IS NOW: Mill Valley, Calif.
WORK SINCE: Co-wrote the Whole Earth Software Catalog (Stewart Brand, 1984,1985); was director of the highly regarded computer networking system, The Well, along with two other former Farm members: worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation on electronic rights; now a networking consultant.
KIDS: Five between the ages of 15 and 28.
QUOTE: ³What most excited me about the Farm was having an impact on the world by tilling your own quarter-acre field. I try to bring that to this whole idea of networking. If people can learn to cooperate and communicate well on a global level, it might help to solve some of the world¹s more pressing problems . ³Cliff
Some notes on historical inaccuracies contained in this report.