The Farm community near Summertown, Tennessee is a subject near and dear to my heart. An experiment in alternative living that has had its successes and failures, it has been an inspiration to many around here and beyond.
I have mentioned The Farm before here and every now and then the mainstream media chooses to do a little feature on what continues to go on there. The Tennessean had one today.
Aged with years of cannabis and communal living, Stephen Gaskin’s body is worn and his words unhurried. At 78, he walks with slow intention. But the spirit of this tie-dye-clad hippie philosopher — iconic founder of The Farm — remains vibrant.
Ask him about the beginning, and his blue eyes come ablaze.
More than four decades ago, Gaskin led a caravan of nonconformists across the country, taking his band of beatnik brethren deep into the Tennessee woods. They traveled from San Francisco and settled on a 1,750-acre spread of land in Summertown in 1971 to form their own society — a spiritual commune called The Farm.
For some, it was an adolescent experiment; for others, such as the Gaskins, a lifelong commitment. “We felt like we had to be grandparents before our time,” says Stephen’s wife, Ina May Gaskin, now 73.
Today, many of the first-generation Farmies, as they called themselves, are grandparents. Their once-long hair is shorter and grayed. And the community they founded is at a crossroads.
Once a home to thousands, The Farm now has only about 140 residents. There are 23 children under age 16, but more than two-thirds of the population is over 50. As the community ages, The Farm’s founders and the generations that have followed must assess the future.
Collectives across the country face similar situations. The Farm formed in an era when people were rebelling against the father-knows-best suburban-America model. They recognized rampant racism and sexism; much was being questioned. People sought positive alternatives and “intentional” communities surged. Since that time, interest in that type of living has ebbed and flowed.
Today, there are about 30 groups from the hippie era that have a fairly high public profile, according to Laird Schaub, executive secretary of Fellowship for Intentional Community. The Farm is one of the largest in the country, he said, set apart by its midwifery practice, its international aid mission and the peaceful transition around leadership that in 1983 changed the commune to a cooperative.
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Still, graying elders wonder who will carry on their legacy. As the country experiences another surge in interest in collective living, the next generation brings its own opinions about how The Farm should progress. Some are children of founders, returned to take care of aging loved ones or start families of their own. Others have come without connection, seeking a place to improve their lives and the world around them.
But as residents both new and returned find a place for themselves, they speak of devotion to The Farm’s original vision and making sure it survives and thrives — a synthesis of old and new.
“I see the continuation of the vision of the founders,” says 36-year-old John Schweri, who was born on The Farm and soon plans to begin a family of his own there. “A vision of creating a safe place to live and to work toward helping the world.”
On The Farm, residents wake up with the roosters and the woods. Hummingbirds flit from feeder to feeder. Wind chimes at the welcome center add music to the morning.Amid the rolling hilltops in one of the poorest counties in rural Tennessee, The Farm is 30 miles from the nearest hospital, 50 miles from the nearest interstate and 75 miles from the nearest major city — Nashville.
To live on The Farm, an applicant must go through a personal interview and write a letter of introduction and intent, which includes a biographical sketch, method of livelihood and a vision of what he or she hopes to contribute to the community. He or she must have a sponsor — a resident who already lives on The Farm — and must move there for a time before being voted in by the current membership.
Once members are accepted, they agree to share the land and the buildings — all held in a trust by the members. Homes get passed on to family or are returned to The Farm. Residents pay fees of about $100 a month to cover road maintenance, water service and other utilities. They can pledge money toward other projects, such as preservation of the swimming hole or expansion of the blueberry patch.
Freedom allows the residents to determine their fortune. They embrace pioneer practices such as natural homebuilding, gardening and midwifery. Their school teaches courses on radical civics and applied psychology. They run businesses devoted to solar power, soy products and sustainable living. They head Farm-based charities focused on permaculture, preservation, international aid and peace efforts.
But one of the most challenging aspects of relocating to The Farm has to do with availability of adequate housing within the community and career opportunities in the vicinity.
About a third of the adults in the community work in nearby towns to support themselves and their families. Some work as independent contractors, while others work in local shops and industries. The rest make a living within the community, working industries established during The Farm’s beginnings — the Mail Order Company, the Soy Dairy, the Tempeh Lab and the Book Publishing Company. MORE
Additional insights on The Farm…
Throughout the history of our country there have been a number of attempts to create and sustain communities outside the ‘norm.’ It’s all about ideas and ideals. The longevity and evolution of The Farm is a tribute to some of those ideals. May their community continue and thrive for as long as possible and practical and may the best of their ideas live on.