The Farm – perhaps the most vibrant commune of the “counterculture” era

Note – as is mentioned in some other posts here, my wife and I lived on a commune called The Farm for a few years in the mid-1970’s. I will write up some of my own stories and outlooks on the experience, but for those who want to know what we were about, the following story by a fellow “farmie” should answer….

The Farm: A Case Study in Creating a New Consciousness and Culture
by Milt Wallace

In the dance between developing individual consciousness and a newly evolving culture, small groups that are in some way isolated from the larger culture can play an important role in creating, incubating and beginning to stabilize the new ideas and values. As the Post Modern paradigm emerged in the 70’s and 80’s, The Farm, a hippy spiritual community was one such group. Because of its size, outreach, and spiritual depth, The Farm’s impact was significant.

Post Modern Culture had its beginnings more than a century ago, but the turbulent years which included the Cold War, the Vietnam and Korean Wars, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Kent State killings, and much more ignited a cultural revolution that led many baby boomers to question the status quo, and to search for some new meaning to life. Travel any highway and you would find young people and some not so young along the road, leaving their middle class homes or aborting their college educations and looking for something new. Modern Consciousness and Culture had a long run with its roots in the 16th century, but as we passed the middle of the 20th century, many came to feel that things weren’t working so well any more.

With its focus on rationality, Modern Culture rejected the myth based religions in Traditional Culture and along with them, anything of a spiritual nature. The drug culture of the 60’s and 70’s gave many people dramatic experiences that were definitely beyond the material world. In attempting to understand and integrate what they had seen, one group of more than 1000 people met every Monday night for 3 years in the San Francisco Bay area to discuss and evolve a new philosophy of life grounded in the knowledge that we are all one. Stephen Gaskin emerged as a Spiritual Teacher for this group.

Post Modern Consciousness: A brief summary

Equality for all, especially previously marginalized groups; provide for all humans; care for the environment; consensus decision making; personal growth; sensitivity; emphasis on dialogue and relationships

Positive: Genuinely people-oriented; increased responsibility for people and planet; world centric morality; renewed spiritual freedom and creativity

Negative: Narcissism; denial of hierarchy; contempt for modernism and traditionalism; overly permissive; unrealistically idealistic; unbalanced emphasis on feelings; weak on need to produce tangible results

In 1970, Stephen, who had been invited to speak around the country, led a group of up to 300 people in 100 vehicles, mostly old psychedelically painted school buses, around the U.S. speaking and interacting with a cross section of America in many different venues. Realizing they had gelled into a community on the trip, and motivated by a desire to opt out of the larger culture, go back to the land and become self sufficient, they settled on 1740 acres in south-central Tennessee where the land was cheap and there were few laws, and began to build. They called their community The Farm, and it grew into a thriving village with school, store, bakery, motor pool, buildings for offices, businesses and much more. When the children began to arrive, they started thinking of themselves as a family monastery. By 1980, there were about 1400 people living on The Farm in Tennessee plus many others on 30 satellite small farms and centers. I joined The Farm community in 1975 living at first on The Franklin, N.Y. Farm.

For the first dozen years, The Farm was a true collective operating out of one pocket book. Life at The Farm was governed by the “Agreements” – a collection of verbally transmitted understandings which were reached by consensus. Rejecting the war prone culture of Modernism, the primary agreements were that we were non-violent vegans who were as compassionate as possible towards each other, to all other beings, and to the land, and that we were committed to “Saving the World.”

One tends to connect hippies with a hedonistic life of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but The Farm agreements on these issues were more principled.

Sex: No hunting. If you were having sex, consider yourself engaged. If you were pregnant, you got married.

Drugs: No LSD or hard drugs. Marijuana was our sacrament, used to raise consciousness.

Rock & Roll: You bet! Stephen was the drummer in The Farm rock & roll band which was called the NRC or Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Question authority, right? The NRC in Washington wasn’t doing much regulating so we took on the job.

Hearing Stephen speak somewhere, living in community, growing your own food, natural childbirth, pacifism, a new spirituality and many other aspects of the community attracted many people to come to The Farm. Becoming a member involved a “soaking” process in which you lived and worked in the community, becoming familiar with its vision and agreements with periodic meetings with Stephen or the Gateman to evaluate your embrace of The Farm culture. Membership began with commitment. To join, you turned bank accounts, vehicles, houses, everything you owned except for a few personal belongings over to the community. You also took a vow of poverty signifying that you would only take according to what you needed.

Stephen had studied under Zen Master Suzuki Roshi, and so he taught Zen but with a hippy flavor. There was a weekly meditation for an hour or more on a hillside overlooking a meadow and forest, or in the school or greenhouse in inclement weather. This was followed by a talk and teachings from Stephen. Much of our practice of Zen though was in the way we related to others and to work.

Farm residents strove to always show up as the best version of themselves, and to speak to that highest place in everyone they encountered. We were always conscientious and fair in the work we did in the surrounding area, and before long we had a lot of friends and supporters among the local population despite the fact that a more potentially hostile environment could not have been found. The Farm settled just a few miles from the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.

Our lifestyle and housing were very third world. We lived on a dollar or two a day each. Accommodations changed over the years from school buses, to army tents and crude shacks, to more basic simple housing. Many households were large with 15 to 40 or more residents. They were like pressure cookers, potentially very developmental, but overheating was possible. We had a number of mechanisms for dealing with the intense nature of our close living situation.

In contrast to the relatively superficial interactions of Modern Culture, we agreed to be a mental nudist colony. If your ego was showing, anyone could speak to you about it. In the beginning a lot of time went into this, as we tended to be conservative with each other and bring up every little thing. Over time, we developed an art and science of supporting each other in our development. We learned to not confront unless it was “necessary, kind and relevant.” Resolving issues began on a one-on-one basis, but others could be brought into it if needed, and it could advance up the hierarchy until on rare occasions the matter was brought before the whole community.

Some households developed into solid supportive and stable groups, but others had more difficulty. To relieve the pressure, the “housing ladies” who kept abreast of the situation including new arrivals, changing physical needs, and the “chemistry” in all households, periodically organized a moving day when large numbers of people would move to new households. As there were no spare beds, it had to be done simultaneously.

We were very aware that we were modeling a new consciousness and culture, and we did all that we could to spread it. Stephen periodically went on speaking tours with the band around North America and in Europe. The Tennessee Farm had 10,000 visitors a year. A rotating crew of up to 10 people manned the gate, explaining our perspective and lifestyle to visitors and taking them on tours of our community. Many visitors stayed in our homes with us and worked with the farming or other crews, so everyone had a chance to talk about our perspective and our life. We got lots of media coverage, including National Geographic, Life magazine, The Mother Earth News, and the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Media coverage continues to this day. For example:

VIDEO: The Farm

The Farm was very much about working for the sake of the whole, from a world centric perspective. Some Farm residents were on sanctuary agreements. Pregnant and don’t know what to do? For free, we will take care of you, deliver your baby, and if you don’t want it, we’ll raise it. If you change your mind later, you can come get him/her. Got a kid you don’t want? Same deal, we’ll take care of him/her until you want him/her back. We took in the disabled, psychologically troubled, the elderly, recently released prisoners, and more. We were mostly white, middle class North Americans, but our development arm called Plenty, was all about a deep sense of care for the less fortunate, especially down-trodden minorities. We introduced soy diets and alternate energy in the Caribbean and Central America, operated a free ambulance service in the South Bronx after it was destroyed by fire, worked in Lesotho, South Africa and Bangladesh. At the present time, Plenty has projects in Guatemala, Belize, Pine Ridge Reserve and is helping to rebuild after Katrina. In 1980, Stephen and Plenty International received the first Right Livelihood Award or alternative Nobel Prize for “caring, sharing and acting with and on behalf of those in need at home and abroad.”

Active in defense of the environment, we stopped chemical companies injecting toxic wastes into underground aquifers, proved that cancer rates were higher around chemical industry facilities, and showed that vegetarian nursing mothers had far fewer chlorinated hydrocarbons like PCBs in their breast milk. We sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, asking that nuclear power in the U.S. be shutdown. The case went to the Supreme Court twice, and resulted in significant safety improvements.

Many visitors asked about the place of women in our community. Stephen’s partner, Ina May, was number two in The Farm hierarchy, followed by the midwives. The “Bank Lady” handled all our finances, and women held a number of other important positions. Women’s sense of care and sensitivity were traits of the community valued by all of us.

The kids soon numbered half our population. Raising them was a joint effort. They were given much more freedom than we had, racing around bareback on ponies and horses from an early age, hanging out at the swimming hole, or exploring the surrounding forests. Reeling them in when school was in session took some doing. Sometimes it seemed we were too permissive, but many of the 2nd generation have become amazing adults.

The Farm was a very creative scenius. Our midwives delivered more than 2000 babies with statistics far superior to hospital births. Their book, “Spiritual Midwifery” still sells well. In 2011, Ina May, received The Right Livelihood Award for her work in advancing midwifery. Her acceptance speech illustrates the need for moving from a Modern paternalistic technological approach to child birthing to one based on Post Modern Consciousness.
Our prevention based Primary Health Care system, which also served many from a nearby Amish community, was a model for more enlightened systems today. Our walk-in clinic was staffed by people with various degrees of training so that our two MD’s didn’t have to handle everything. We exhibited three different solar powered systems at the 1982 World Fair. One was a solar powered car. Our 10 room passive solar school was visited by school officials from all over the world. We developed a radiation detector that fits in your shirt pocket, as well as the Doppler fetuscope, the first non-invasive tool for determining the condition of a child in the womb. Our experience with and books on a vegetarian diet and tofu and tempeh cookery have been very influential.

The first dozen years were all about expansion, but things changed and a contraction began. Money, or the lack of it, was a big part of the cause. In the late 70’s, against the advice of the farming crew, Stephen, who held some notion of feeding the world, pressed for a large expansion of the farming operation including 300 acres in Florida. Bad weather resulted in the community going into debt by $250,000. This led to a confrontation between Stephen and the farming crew and ultimately to some of the crew leaving the community. Already in deep poverty, the debt was a lot to carry.
Community members became more active in the business aspects of our life. As the population in Tennessee moved above 1000, it became more difficult to know and feel connected to everyone. A stronger sense of individualism began to emerge in some quarters. Should we use alcohol, became a rather divisive issue. The “changeover” came in 1983 when it was decided that collectivism wasn’t working and that everyone had to earn their own money. This precipitated a mass exodus since most people were unable to make a living while still at the rurally situated Farm.

Today, though just a shadow of the former paradise that was, The Farm is still an impressive community. There are nearly 200 residents living cooperatively in much improved housing with a number of strong businesses in operation. There are groups of former residents scattered around North America, some even sharing the same piece of land. There is also a community online. Many are still working for the sake of the whole.

It is often difficult to attribute a given cultural characteristic to any particular source, but the intense development of the new culture in The Farm community and its influential contacts with so many of those ready to evolve out of modernism, make clear The Farm’s important contribution to Post Modern Culture.