In 1971, a group of “voluntary peasants” followed Stephen Gaskin, an English teacher who people were drawn to for his spiritual visions, from San Francisco to Summertown, TN. Along the way, they stopped and talked at community centers and churches about self-sustainability, communal livingtheories, and Gaskin’s spiritual ruminations. The “hippies” made their way across the United States in 80 white school buses, and started their experiment in communal living. The “voluntary peasants” knew very little about farming but collaborated with the Amish Community and also with local older men and women whose children had left the country to go to the city. They taught the “hippies” what they wanted to teach their children. So, people were searching for the opposite of their roots. Young country folk moved to the city, and young city folk moved to the country.
Unlike many media representations, the farm was never a completely isolated community nor off the grid. It was always a collaboration with the surrounding community. They took vows of poverty, lived together in a life of constant movement and energy, and vowed to make it on a dollar a day. 320 people came to Tennessee but in the span of around 10 years that number grew to 1500. The farm in Summertown, Tennessee got the most attention because of the story of the white school buses, but there were satellite farms in several other states and many farm residents moved from farm to farm making connections. The farm population has always been fluid. Population growth, FBI surveillance in the 1970s, financial issues, and a changing society (both internal and external) began “the changeover” in 1983.
There is a distance from how the hippies were constructed in the media and what was actually happening in the commune. Hippies were constructed as lazy, addicted to drugs (some drug use happened as in every community, and I am sure that there was some addiction), rebelling against society and their mothers and fathers (many farm residents called their parents on a regular basis), or were completely anti-business. In reality, people were working hard, taking care of their families, starting communal businesses, and trying to live a “righteous livelihood” which is the idea that ideals should line up with your work. One original farm member says that she had jobs in the book publishing company, the flour mill, and finally found her passion in the medical lab. She left the commune after several years and started working at a local hospital. The commune experience gave many young people the skills that they used outside of the commune when they left. Other farm members describe the work on the farm in the 1970s as “hard.”
In the late 1970s, the commune started the non-profit Plenty and also became known for midwifery. Ina Gaskin wrote the book “Spiritual Midwifery.” This book advocates natural birth and discusses the problems with the medicalization of childbirth. Many women have had their babies on the farm and over the last decades over 3000 women have chosen to have their babies on the farm. Women have come from Turkey and Kenya to birth their babies in the Tennessee forest. Plenty started a Soy Factory in Guatemala, built schools in El Salvador, and is currently promoting school and community gardens in Belize. It was one of the first non-profits on the scene in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the past twenty years, the community has started a books to kids campaign which has gotten over a thousand books in local homes.
In 1983, leadership of the commune changed and it became a cooperative. People had to find a way to be financially self-sufficient. This change reflected the times. The land is part of a trust so the community owns the land, but each person owns the house and building materials. There are rules to how the intentional community works, but I do not know the specifics. They have a community garden, potluck dinners, and community events. There is also a farm school which is a less structured, student-centered, exploratory school. It is a private school and some students come from the farm and from surrounding communities.
During the summer retreat, we have taken hikes, talked to “hippies” who came in the 1970s, met recent additions to the farm, visited their 3rd Saturday market, ate vegan food, learned about the eco-village and training center, and just relaxed.
For me, the farm was and is an interesting social experiment. People wanted to subvert social norms, but in reality, the community ended up mimicing those social norms (1970 hippies travelling across the country become the entrepreneurs of the 1980s). What happens when people intentionally live outside state institutions? How and why do the hierarchies of a community start to mimic the larger institutions that they intend to subvert? Why is it so hard to shift social paradigms? How did farming which is something that my mother’s family did for a living become counter-culture? My grandparents raised cotton and a lot of their food for many years. They were self-sustainable before it was branded self-sustainable. It was survival.
I asked a leader in the community about being an “object of curiosity,” and he simply stated, “We use this to our advantage.” So, the story of the buses and the hippies who farmed becomes a brand that the community uses to bring attention to certain issues and get more donations. And now that “becoming a hipster," eating organic, buying local, and growing your own herbs is becoming “cool” again, this story from the seventies will continue to resonate.
1. The Farm Website: http://www.thefarm.org
2. "Spiritual Midwifery"By Ina May Gaskin: https://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Midwifery-Ina-May-Gaskin/dp/1570671044
3. "Voices of the Farm" by Doug Stevenson: https://www.amazon.com/Voices-Farm-Second-Rupert-Fike/dp/1570672881
4. Reducing Fear of birth in the USA: A talk by Ina May Gaskin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9LO1Vb54yk
5. Stephen Gaskin talks about the farm Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdOdLEVU54o
6. Birth Story: A documentary about the Farm and Midwifery: http://watch.birthstorymovie.com/
7. A very thorough "Vanity Fair" article: "Sex, Drugs, and Soybeans": http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/05/thefarm200705
8. United Shades of America: Look for the episode "Off the Grid": http://www.cnn.com/shows/united-shades-of-america
More Photos to Come....Stay Tuned!