OUT TO SAVE THE WORLD: LIFE AT THE FARM
By Michael I. Niman
(originally published by High Times, February 1995)
(Summertown, Tennessee) Nestled in the woodlands of south central Tennessee's moonshine district, just an hour and a half south of Opryland and three hours east of Graceland, lies The Farm, an I-Tal community of warriors "out to save the world." Sociologists call it an "intentional community," the mainstream press anacronizes it as a "hippie commune." Residents, however, just call it "home."
They settled here in 1971. Transplants from San Francisco's Haight Ashbury acid scene, they arrived in a caravan of 50 or so brightly painted live-in school buses. They were a bunch of city kids planning to grow their own food, get high, groove on the land and teach the world how to live in peace. The Farm, according to their one time spiritual mentor, Stephen Gaskin, was going to be a demonstration project for a sustainable future - a non-violent eco-friendly cooperative community of pioneers ushering in a new age.
By the early 1980's, when most other 60's era communal experiments were fading, their population swelled to almost 1,500 people. They not only farmed portions of their 1,700 acre home in Tennessee, but had satellite communities and farms in Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin, California, New York, Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia, Canada and Ireland. They were running relief operations in Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, Bangladesh and the South Bronx with a worldwide operation in constant communication with Tennessee via ham radio and ham television.
They invented Ice Bean, ran a school, pioneered vegan cookery, started a book publishing company, an electronics firm, a tofu plant, and a construction company. Their midwifes earned recognition around the world as leaders in the midwifery movement and earned the respect of the local medical establishment for their excellent birthing record.
While much of this activity still continues today, the Farm is deceivingly quiet. Their population has stabilized with approximately 250 full time residents. On a warm humid September night I wandered over to one of their basketball courts. The last of the summer's mosquitos swarmed around two blinking florescent pole lights, rusted and in need of paint, they seemed to be salvaged from an old gas station. A group of teenagers, some wearing tie-dies, shot the hoops. A few others were just sitting around, talking, laughing, and drinking fruit juice Spritzers.
It was our first night on the Farm. Gabe, the High Times photographer who I had just traveled to Tennessee with, looked over at me, "Wa 'sup. Everything here is so normal?" I was confused. Why did High Times roust me from my home and fly me to Tennessee? Where's the story?
But then I looked again. It was normal. And it worked. That's what set it apart from America. People were shooting hoops, not crack, and not each other. Here was a community. Of course, as the days went by the veneer faded, exposing a youth rebellion, power struggles, political infighting and all the trimmings of any normal American town.
The Farm, however, is somewhat unique in its marriage of hip countercultural values, including a reverence for marijuana, and a good ol fashion rural Tennessee work ethic. Its evolution was influenced by two dominant personalities: Stephen Gaskin and Homer Sanders.
At the time, Gaskin was a well known San Francisco "acid guru." His "Monday Night Class" which originated as a course at San Francisco State's experimental college, evolved into a sort of weekly be-in at the Family Dog rock hall, regularly drawing thousands of followers. The last Monday Night Class in California was held February 10, 1971. The caravan departed the next day.
Homer Sanders was a neighbor on Drakes Lane in Summertown, Tennessee. Sanders first arrived, shotgun in hand, intent on driving the hippies out. After talking with Gaskin, however, he changed his mind and turned his gun on another neighbor who was giving the Farm folks a hard time, only to be dissuaded by Gaskin from using violence. Soon thereafter Homer Sanders taught his new hippie friends how to make cane molasses, mill lumber etc. Farm residents, to this day, include Homer Sanders in their stories about "the old days."
Despite the friendship of Sanders and other neighbors, the Farm still had a rough start. Three months after arriving in Summertown, they were busted for growing marijuana.
Resident Farm historian, Michael Traugot, described the early Farm as a "grass church." Farm folks, according to Traugot, "depended upon marijuana for insight, for ceremonial value, and to enhance lovemaking." They shunned, however, commerce in pot. Traugot explains that since pot was used as a "sacrament and an aid to consciousness, one absorbed some of the karma of those who produced and distributed [it]." "The cleanest form of pot, most suitable for the kind of loving consciousness and clear mind" that Farm folks were seeking, he adds, "was pot lovingly grown over which no money changed hands." With their reverence for pot and their aversion to buying pot, growing seemed to be the only choice.
They were not however, subtle, about their growing. Gaskin explained to me that, "not only did they plant it, but they did little decorative things around it, sat nude and played flute to it, and got caught by people going by doing that, until they just aroused the curiosity of the neighbors." Gaskin pointed out that "you don't just run a strange plant in on a bunch of farmers, they look at plants the way city folks look at cars and stuff."
The bust was cordial. In fact, Gaskin and the Sheriff later went on to become close friends. The congeniality of the police, however, didn't alter the fact that they were enforcing what Gaskin and the Farm saw as an unjust law. Rather then proclaim ignorance of the pot, Gaskin took full responsibility and with the Farm's legal defense crew, spent three years fighting the case in court, claiming that marijuana prohibition violated their right to freedom of religion since marijuana was viewed on the Farm as a sacred herb and used by individuals for spiritual worship. The case was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme court who refused to hear it. Gaskin eventually spend a year in jail.
The 1971 bust was the Farm's last pot bust. Gaskin, who to this day still sees pot as "the green herb of understanding that lets people who don't speak the same language laugh at the same jokes," also saw the potential for repressive pot laws to be used to destroy the Farm. Hence, soon after the bust, the Farm adopted what they call "a strict rule" to never let a cannabis plant grow anywhere on their land."
The strategy paid off on July 11, 1980, when a full battalion of state police, including 2 helicopters and approximately 50-60 police cars and jeeps, dogs and over 100 officers, raided the Farm in the dark of night. Accompanied by 3 Nashville television stations, they converged from all directions on a field of ragweed. As it turned out, an overzealous helicopter pilot on a routine dope spotting run over the Farm, mistook the overgrown watermelon field, with its neat rows of ragweed which had grown up between the melons, for hemp.
A humiliated police officer told television news reporters that the hippies must have been tipped off, pulled up all traces of cannabis, and quickly planted the six foot tall ragweed plants. The judge who issued the warrant, which incidentally gave police the right to search all of the 100 or so homes on the Farm for balloons and spoons, among other items of "paraphernalia," apologized.
For the Farm, the failure of the only dope raid since the 1971 bust, was a triumph. To a person, everyone respected the vow not to grow weed. None was found and the Farm was left in peace. It was a bittersweet victory however; to save their land and their homes, Farm residents gave up cultivating their "sacred herb."
Albert Bates, the Farm's attorney, points out that the Farm has outlasted both a Tennessee governor and sheriff who have been locked up behind bars during the Farm's tenure. The Farm's triumph over the raid is now celebrated every July 11th with a Ragweed Day Festival.
Despite surviving the raid, the Farm's future was still cloudy in the early 1980's. Their farming operation lsot money during the family farm crisis of the late 1970's, leaving them slightly more than a million dollars in debt, despite hard work and excellent crops. At the same time, their other big cash cow, the construction company, was all but idle due to the recession and the ensuing decrease in housing starts. The Farm was down for the count, ironically, not because their experimental collectivism failed, but because of failures within the greater capitalist economy.
Faced with losing their land, in 1983, the Farm abruptly changed from a communal to a privatized economy. In order to raise money to pay off trhe debt, collective businesses were sold and residents were charged fixed membership fees, a sort of regressive tax, to remain on their land. Many who worked on collective Farm projects such as road maintenance, suddenly found themselves facing expenses but not having an income. The Farm motorpool was privatized, leaving many residents without transportation to go out and find work.
Like "shock therapy" in Eastern Europe, most people were unprepared to cope with the rapid changes. In 1983 alone, approximately 700 people left the Farm. By the late 1980's, less then 300 people remained on the land. The Farm's debt, however, was paid off in three years.
Today's Farm has wandered considerably from it's egalitarian roots. A class schism has developed. Some people drive new Volvo's or Toyota pick-up trucks, others bike, hitch or walk. Ramshackle houses, originally built up from tent platforms, and now beginning to compost back into the ground, stand just up the road from new state of the art homes. Since the Farm's businesses have been privatized, there are now entrepreneurs and workers. Still, they work side by side, and for the time being, the workers have no complaints about pay or treatment.
Farm history as it's told today, no matter who the narrator, is divided into two eras - before "the changes," and after "the changes." "Before" is a nostalgic amalgam of romanticized chaos, idealism, power and triumph. "After" is a story of pragmatism, survival, and balance sheets, peppered with a litany of business successes. Melding the stories together creates a picture of a metamorphosis from a hippie commune to a hip land trust and small business incubator.
Before the changes, as many as 50 people inhabited a single building. Today each family has its own home. Before, everyone's property and money was pooled together in a common pot - clothing and food at the community store was "free." Medical care and schooling were also free. Now people have bank accounts and charge cards - the store is privately owned and sells Pepsi along with tie-dies and vegan foods. The Farm school now charges tuition, so most Farm chilren go to public school in nearby towns.
As I passed a collapsing building I asked one of the Farm's teenage residents what it used to be. "The communal laundromat," he answered. I asked him where folks do their laundry now. Laughing, he replied, "they all have their own washers and dryers....they got nice cars too, and color televisions..."
For most of us, this seems normal. Private washing machines and cars are not normally seen as trimmings of the rich and famous. For the Farm's younger generation, however, it's still weird. Brought up in the heyday of collectivism, many still cling to the idealism their parents have lost. They remember their friends who moved away. One ex Farm resident, now a Nashville Psychologist, sees the new generation, who grew up together in a "tribal" environment, as one day leading the Farm back to communitarianism.
Many of the young Farm folk, however, are not sticking around. There is a haunting absence of people between the ages of 18 to 35. Rebellion is in the air. The few who remain complain that they are often not respected and not accepted as full voting members. Still referred to on the Farm as "our kids" even after they are well into their 20's, many have moved on to start lives of their own away from the Farm. A lot of them have settled in the San Francisco Bay area, where two decades ago Stephen Gaskin's Monday Night Classes so captivated their parents.
There are many reasons for the lack of people in their 20's at the Farm. Foremost, as Carol Nelson, Chair of the Farm's Foundation, pointed out to me, is simple math. Few of the Farm's founders arrived with families in hand. Most had children during the Farm's "baby boom" in the early 70's, hence there just plain aren't many offspring older then 23.
Many Farm children leave because they aren't satisfied with rural southern life, have wanderlust, and want to taste some of the adventure their parents had at their age when they turned on to acid and roamed the continent. Still others, trained at many of the Farm's hi-tech businesses, are finding themselves very employable and are slipping into middle-class lives. It was quite common for Farm parents, outfitted in bright tie-dies, to beam with pride as they told me of their children landing jobs as broadcast executives and the like.
If the Farm fails to hold on to their younger generation, what began as a seed for a brave new communal age, will end as a retirement center for aging visionaries. The Farm's ideals, however, will not die, but will spread as Farm children fan out over the continent.
Even with their diminished numbers, the Farm is still a hotbed of activity. Virtually everyone at the Farm has a project they're devoted to. Most people have several. When they began the caravan in 1971, the lead bus, an old scenicruiser, had posted as it's destination: "Out To Save The World." That slogan still holds today as all Farm projects, even the commercial ones, are geared towards saving the planet.
Among the more visible groups on the Farm, are the midwifes. Spurred by the success of Ina Mae Gaskin's book, Spiritual Midwifery, which has sold over 500,000 copies in six languages, the Farm's midwifes are known around the world. In the United States, they are at the forefront of a movement to end the legal prohibition against midwifery, still in effect in most states.
For the Farm's midwifes, the civil right to practice midwifery is essential for a community to survive. "There is something elemental about birth and death," Ina Mae explained to me one afternoon over tea. "When you are able to return control of these processes to communities," she went on, "and take it out of institutions... what is learned in the process nourishes life in a lot of ways that are generally too subtle for most people to see."
Giving birth on the Farm is more a mystical, then a mechanical experience. It is also, according to Joanne Santana, one of the Farm's midwifes, "empowering." The midwife, Santana explained, doesn't claim to "deliver" the baby, but instead "attends" the birth and assists the mother, who ultimately delivers the baby. At the Farm, the midwife and mother are partners with mutual respect. Instead of drugs, they use the power of "trust and friendship."
Ina Mae recalled how she, like Santana, had her first baby in a hospital: "We both had babies in the same brutal fashion... We were strapped down. You weren't prepared for that. You didn't know it was going to happen. It was like being in a nightmare torture scene. And if you were never treated badly before, it was quite a shock to be treated like that. And there's nobody in your family that even knows that it's happening... Then you are separated from your baby for a long time. And you're cut, being told that it would keep you from being injured. And your baby's head is clamped with forceps, and you are told that's in order that you won't crunch the baby's head."
Women opt for hospital births, according to Ina Mae, because of acculturation: "Depending on your cultural background you either end up approaching childbirth with respect and a sense of adventure... or you are in dread and you are absolutely frightened and sure that it can't happen without some sort of stupendous miraculous help - and that's what we're sold can happen in the hospital. And that's why so many people are not only willing, but happy to have a cesarean - because they're so afraid of the natural process. They think it will be worse then abdominal surgery."
The Farm midwifes stress that women's bodies do, in fact, work. Hence, most caesareans are not necessary. Farm midwifes actually delivered 183 babies before their first cesarean. With almost 2,000 births under their belt now, their cesarean rate is only 1.7% This compares to a national rate of over 24% during hospital births.
Farm midwifes are also on the cutting edge of midwifery research. One technique they learned from Mayan midwifes in Guatemala, for instance, has been written up in medical journals and is now incorporated into life support training for family physicians. The technique for delivering babies whose shoulders get hung up during delivery, simply involves rolling and twisting the mother. The baby then "pops right out."
Doctors, on the other hand, push the baby back into the mother, then do a caesarian. In a study of 59 such cases, 2 babies died, 3 women had their pubic bones cut, 2 had emergency hysterectomies, 4 babies had permanent neurological damage, and 5 babies ended up with arms that will never work. The Farm midwifes, by contrast, delivered 40 babies using the Mayan technique without a single complication. The Maya claim they learned the procedure from god.
Farm midwives combine what the Maya learned from god with what they learned from LSD. Key to the acid connection, they explain, is oxycitocin, a near cousin to LSD which is naturally released by a woman's body during birth. LSD, incidentally, was discovered by a chemist as he tried to synthesize oxycitocin.
Ina Mae recalls giving birth to her first child in the hospital. When she first entered labor, it was a trip like experience. The trip faded, however, as soon as doctors drugged her. Two years later, while on her third acid trip, she realized the similarity of the experiences. Today, Farm midwifes council a rough labor much the same way they would a bad trip. "Stay calm, breath deep, don't focus on complaining."
Currently, expectant parents from around the country venture to the Farm to give birth. They often spend the last 3 - 6 weeks of pregnancy on the Farm, staying in quaint guesthouses while working with the Midwifes. The cost for such a blissful birth is only a fraction of the cost of a hospital delivery.
The Farm is also known for its monumental contribution to meat and dairy free vegan epicure. It's probably a safe bet to say the Farm has more cookbook authors per capita then any other community in the country. We feasted at Louise Hagler's home which was recently designed and built around an amphitheater of a kitchen. Hagler, the author of 3 cookbooks, is currently working on a lowfat vegan cookbook. The kitchen, she explained, will soon be a set for vegan cooking videos. We also chowed down, among other places, at Barb and Neil Bloomfield's home. Their house, formerly residence to 10 families, is now open to the public as a bed and breakfast. Barb is author of Fabulous Beans.
Hagler and Bloomfield's books, along with a host of other cookbooks, are published by The Book Publishing Company, the only remaining business that is wholly and collectively owned by the Farm Foundation. While focusing primarily on vegetarianism, holistic health, Native American authors, midwifery and women's health, they also publish The World of CB Radio, a million plus copy best seller. Vice President Al Gore, himself a Tennessee homeboy, wrote the foreword to one of their newer books, Albert Bates' Climate in Crisis.
The Book Company also runs a mail order book business which includes titles by other presses. Their catalog, of course, is called The Mail Order Catalog. It contains 217 vegetarian cookbooks and 47 vegetarian nutrition and philosophy books among their titles.
Other resident businesses include the The Soy Dairy, a commercial producer of tofu, tempeh and soy milk; Total video, a video production studio responsible for many of the ads seen on local television in South central Tennessee; The Mushroom People, selling supplies to grow shiitake mushrooms; The Dye Works, artist and Farm "refusenic" John Ibur's tie-die shop; the Summertown Food Company; the Farm Veggie Deli and The Farm Excavation company, to name but a few.
Many Farm businesses are integrated into the local economy. The Farm Building Company, for instance, has framed over 400 houses and built a K-Mart as well as landscaping Opryland. "Not bad for a bunch of Hippies," one Farm resident jokingly told me.
The Farm's electronics company contracts with the federal government to build radiation detectors for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Ironically, only 10 years earlier, FEMA, under the direction of Ed Meese and Ronald Reagan, had targeted Farm residents for a possible mass roundup and detention in the event of a U.S. invasion of Central America.
It wasn't the Farm's political activity (they're Democrats) that caught the Reagan administration's paranoid and confused eye, but it's high profile international humanitarian work which it carried out through its relief organization, Plenty.
It was Stephen Gaskin, forever laboring to find new projects to "save the world," who dreamed up Plenty in 1974. The idea was simple. Farm residents gleaned all sorts of skills in erecting the Farm. Hence, with skills now in hand, and a few tools, they could be dispatched to trouble spots around the globe. In 1976, a Plenty crew started planning their trip to Guatemala soon after Farm Ham radio operators became aware of a devastating earthquake.
Once in Guatemala, Plenty joined forces with the Canadian International Development Agency. The Canadians supplied materials for Plenty volunteers who coordinated the construction of 1,200 earthquake resistant new homes near the quake's epicenter. They used their electronics skills to build a native language radio station and used their engineering skills to build water systems for remote Mayan villages.
In an effort to combat malnutrition in Guatemala, Plenty set up a demonstration soy dairy which is still in operation producing Ice Bean, tofu and soy milk. After their success in Guatemala, they expanded the soy program, teaching soy dairy skills as well as sustainable agriculture skills in Jamaica, Belize, Dominica, Liberia, Lesotho, Mexico and Nicaragua. They also have organized health care programs and the development of locally controlled cottage industries in the same countries. In the U.S. they installed Israeli drip irrigation systems in 200 gardens on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation and ran an ambulance service in the South Bronx.
Other Farm projects include the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program of Nashville; the EcoVillage Training Center, which is now setting up sustainable eco-communities in Russia; The Natural Rights Center, a civil rights research and advocacy organization; The Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology; and Kids to the County, a program to bring inner-city children to the Farm.
Stephen Gaskin's new project is Rocinante. Located on 100 acres adjoining the Farm, Rocinante will primarily be a cooperative retirement community where "elderly people can spend their last days surrounded by woods, wildlife and people who care for them." Plans also call for a birthing center. Hence, Rocinante will offer a "sacred space" for both birth and death.
There is still a dark side to life in Summertown. Lumber companies are currently buying up most of the woodlands surrounding the Farm, clearcutting mature oak forests, and sending them to chip mills to be reduced to paper pulp, a product that could more sensibly be made from hemp fiber. While they were out saving the world, their own neighborhood was being destroyed. Still hopeful, however, Farm residents, neighbors and friends have organized yet another project; a land trust, and are now attempting to buy and preserve some of the last remaining forests that surround the Farm.
In all, there are currently over 60 corporations, business partnerships, non-profit organizations and assorted projects associated with the Farm. The last two decades on the Farm have been turbulent, yet at the same time, tranquil. The future promises more of the same.
The Farm is one of the ultimate American odysseys. From the Family Dog to Opryland; from acid to Ice Bean - What a long strange trip its been.
For more information about Farm projects, write to that project, care of:
Summertown, TN 38483