The Farm’s colorful, hippie heyday is now but a distant memory. Even the great Changeover, the defining moment of The New Farm, is now decades in the past. The Farm Community has not only survived, but remains as a model lifestyle for humanity, demonstrating that humans can live together in a way that is ecological, peaceful, and viable. The collective land base remains intact, and the shared ownership of all buildings, home and infrastructure, along with its robust internal economy and integration with the world at large, is a futuristic hybrid capitalist enterprise blended with tribal stewardship.
As the community’s original founders age and enter what are typically regarded as the retirement years, a new generation of young people is becoming more established, starting families of their own and slowly taking over management of the community. To be sure, the community faces a variety of new challenges. What values and principles will pass on, or be abandoned? Do those inheriting The Farm’s legacy have the same internal drive to “save the world?” Do they share the sense of oneness and idealism that has held the community together through difficult times?
In many ways the financial, environmental and social calamities facing our world today were foreseen by the early founders of The Farm. As the world economy struggles, and comes to terms with the depletion of resources and the uncertain future of climate change, The Farm’s remains as a flagship and a beacon, pointing to alternatives in building, energy, land management, education, health care, and the list goes on . At the same time, for its members, The Farm is also a lifeboat, an island oasis buffered from a world increasingly manipulated by international banks and corporations, where each individual must fend for themselves.
Organization and Structure
In many ways, the organizational structure and management of the community has remained much the same as the system put in place in the months and early years following The Changeover. Each person living full-time on the land is expected to contribute a fixed monthly amount based on an annual budget divided by the total number of members. Extended visitors, called “residents,” as well as provisional members, also contribute the same amount, which helps compensate for any members who have fallen ill or lost their means of employment or for any other reason are unable to meet their monthly obligations.
On-The Farm businesses also contribute financially to the community’s budget in relation to the amount of services and infrastructure they use that is provided by the community. For example, a business may have regular deliveries by large trucks or daily pickup services by companies like Federal Express and UPS. It is only logical that they also contribute to the cost of road maintenance.
Monthly contributions by nonmembers and businesses on The Farm have allowed the community to maintain a budget surplus year after year. In addition, those with higher incomes are encouraged to pledge additional funds to support projects and services that go beyond the scope of the mandatory minimum monthly dues. This allows such projects that many would like to see implemented but cannot afford to move forward, increasing the benefits for all who choose to live in the community.
The community continues to be managed by a seven person Board of Directors elected through Democratic vote to three-year terms. The process of integrating new members as well as mediation that may be necessary to arbitrate disputes between members is the responsibility of the Membership Committee, another democratically selected body, this time serving two-year terms. The Membership Committee oversees and continues to make improvements to the community’s bylaws.
There are a host of additional committees that oversee other aspects of the community, including finance, land use, and housing to name a few, that are staffed by volunteers. They make recommendations to the Board of Directors and to the community and are empowered to make decisions and set policy subject to the approval or disapproval of the members. Each volunteer committee includes a member from the elected board, so that there is a direct line of communication. Committees give reports at quarterly community meetings and are able to post announcements through various forms of communications, such as a communitywide, weekly e-newspaper, and electronic all points which goes out to all members, coupled with an e-discussion group for those interested or willing to hash out the details.
Businesses and Employment
since the time of the Changeover, each adult member has been responsible for their own income and for the support of themselves and their family. Approximately 2/3’s of the communities members and residents work at businesses or are self-employed inside the community, with the remaining third traveling to jobs outside the community, primarily in the fields of health care and construction.
The most successful business operating inside The Farm is SE International, an electronics manufacturing firm which produces Geiger counters, small handheld devices that pickup and monitor exposure to nuclear radiation. Established in the late 70s following the near meltdown of the 3 Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the demand for its products has increased exponentially following each worldwide, nuclear disaster. Following the Changeover, the company was organized as a corporation with a controlling interest in the stock sold to the company’s managers in key employees, with the communities still maintaining a 20% interest. SC international employs approximately 20 people, a good mix of members from the founding generation and those younger and age and maintains a strong connection of family, over the years employing husbands and wives, brothers, sons and daughters, new folks as well as friendships they go back over 30 years.
The Book Publishing Company
The Book Publishing Company is similar in size both in revenues and the number of people that it employs. This was The Farm’s original business, created to publish books by community founder Stephen Gaskin. Early on in the early to mid-1970s, the company published successful titles based on the life experiences taking place within The Farm. Spiritual Midwifery, edited over 30 years ago by Ina May Gaskin, based on stories written about the natural birth experience by mothers on the early Farm, has sold over half a million copies and continues to be a bestseller worldwide. An early cookbook which provided recipes related to The Farm’s vegan lifestyle, also sold well and continues to be part of the company’s catalog of titles. The success of this book led to the production of other cookbooks related to the vegetarian diet and health and this has become the company’s primary focus and target, niche market. The book publishing company also produces a catalog of titles by Native American authors and subjects related to their way of life, a relationship that grew from the initial work of The Farm’s nonprofit Plenty International, and its relationship with indigenous people both in the US and abroad.
Both SE international and the Book Publishing Company represent successful businesses based in a rural location that utilize attendance at trade shows as their primary form of marketing. Representatives from each company will travel, set up a professional display, take orders and make connections, returning back to the community to do follow-up and pursue sales leads. It has proven to be an effective way to do business.
It has been said that The Farm has more nonprofits per square mile than just about anywhere else in the country. Several provide the primary means of employment for members of the community. Farm Midwifery Center serves as an umbrella for number of women inside the community who provide this service. Ida May Gaskin has written several more successful books about childbirth and babies and she and the other midwives have been featured in documentaries that have been shown through nationwide theatrical release and are available through mainstream multimedia video services. The reputation of the Farm Midwives draws mothers wishing to utilize the unique talents from around the world. In addition, The Farm Midwives are able to derive a supplemental income by hosting weeklong educational workshops for birthing assistance, aspiring midwives, as well as advanced classes for professional and certified midwives.
The Farm School functions as a private school and is also organized as a nonprofit, providing employment for teachers and staff. From year-to-year, about half of its registered students come from outside the community, children who live in the area whose parents wish to take advantage of The Farm Schools emphasis on nonviolence, nature, creativity, and self-directed education.
The Advantage of Size
When compared to other intentional communities, the significantly larger population of The Farm Community presents several advantages, specifically related to employment. The Farm Store represents a prime example. Although a small percentage of its customers are represented by people who come from outside the community, its core constituency and the foundation of its business are the members and residents of the community. Because a sufficient number of the community’s population takes advantage of the convenience and easy access to products from The Farm Store, it is able to provide full and part-time employment for several people. Large events such a conferences and the annual family reunion help boost its profits, again business directly related to its location inside the community.
A number of members provide services in demand by people living in the community. People with construction skills such as framing, electrical work, and plumbing, often build additions or do building maintenance. Contractors will manage and oversee the building of new homes.
There is always a need for manual labor, which can be a good way for a young person or someone new to the community to generate some quick income. Even a basic service like housecleaning is only possible when there is a population large enough in size available, with a percentage that will have such a need. The flow of money within The Farm’s own internal economy is a significant element of its success and longevity.
Things have come a long way since the days of buses and tents. After the Changeover, members of the farm were able to invest the money they earned to fix up and improve their homes, the large structures that had once provided communal housing for up to 40 people. Most have required a sizable investment, new roofs, new doors and windows, electrical wiring, finish floors, toilets and drain fields, and the list goes on. In most places, even the inside sheetrock or wallboard needed to be plastered and painted.
With all the homes built during The Farm’s communal period occupied by those who stayed after The Changeover, virtually all returning former members and new people joining the community have had to start from scratch, building new homes of many different types and styles. Since the turn-of-the-century, the farm has been in the midst of a housing boom, even after the housing bubble crashed for the rest of the country. This is even more remarkable when one considers that all homes on The Farm are built without bank financing.
Because the land of the Farm Community is preserved in a trust, no one owns their home. All buildings attached to a piece of land are considered part of that land. In this way all homes on The Farm are owned by the trust.
The community recognizes that its members have made considerably large capital investments in their homes and the knowledge is that this equity has value. Members are permitted to transfer or sell that equity to another member or provisional member through a contract brokered by The Foundation, the Corporation which manages all of the community’s assets owned by the trust for the benefit of the members. The downside is that few people have the cash savings at their disposal to buy out a family born individual’s equity which can easily be $100-$200,000 or more.
Banks will not provide financing, because should the borrower default on loan, the bank cannot repossess the home and offered for sale on the open market, to recoup their loss. To sponsor alone for a homebuyer, the community would need to use its land as collateral and it is unwilling to do so. Simply providing the financing for a half-dozen homes serving only a small handful of people would require that the community place a lien against the land of a half-million to a million dollars, and there is universal agreement that the land should not be encumbered or endangered in any way.
The situation regarding housing is both a strength and a weakness for the community. On the one hand, people who live on The Farm our mortgage free. The bank cannot come in the any evict or take away someone’s home. At the same time, the absence of bank financing limits the ability of people to join the community and constrains the construction of new housing, at least to a degree.
As mentioned earlier, on any given year The Farm may have four new homes under construction. Some have been able to sell a home on the outside, make a profit, and use that money to build on the farm. Others may spend years saving money to build or come into an inheritance. Many will start out with a small cabin and then add on as they save more money, a “pay-as-you-go” plan. Those with construction skills who are able to function as a contractor and do much of the labor themselves have a particular advantage.
The people who fall into the scenario above often tend to be people who moved to The Farm after retirement or have been working long enough to develop a high paid skill and larger incomes. New housing can be especially challenging for young families who bear the expense of raising children, have little savings, and are less likely to have achieved their peak earning potential.
Again in spite of these difficulties there are those who find a way. Some may get assistance from their family. Other start small and build on their own. Occasionally the community is able to provide small loans which can help someone get through a certain phase of construction the money that can be reviled once it has been paid back, another version of the pay-as-you-go plan.
The homes built during the communal period in the ‘70s were constructed primarily recycled building materials acquired through demolition and salvage operations. Now that the cost of labor must be factored in, that type of work is no longer cost-effective. Still, if anything, The Farm is a place of idealists, and the construction of a home becomes a statement and a way to express core values of sustainability and energy efficiency, models that can be emulated by society at large.
Because members invest their own money when they build, each home is a reflection of choices made by the homeowner based on their budget, personal desires, compromises and priorities.
For some, green building is about energy efficiency. White, enamel coated tin, with an estimated lifespan of 40 years, reflects light in the sun’s heat, even infrared rays, and can help keep a home cool, especially important in the hot climate of Tennessee. Spray foam insulation creates a tight seal with a high R value. Insulated concrete foam, or ICF’s, are extremely energy efficient, with the super insulation of a double wall of foam sandwiching poured concrete, for massive, thick walls that will resist the mightiest tornado, another consideration in Middle Tennessee and an unpredictable future of ever more powerful storms.
Cement board siding is virtually indestructible and will last forever. Some have used siding from cypress boards that is both rustic and attractive as well as naturally resistant to rot and bugs. Others prefer poplar board siding from locally harvested timber, a fast-growing tree and a renewable resource.
Natural builders work with materials like straw and clay, round log poles for framing and post-and beam construction. The straw/clay mix provides insulation and the foundation to support natural earth plasters coding the interior and exterior walls. This allows the interior rooms to “breathe” and transfer humidity, a natural cooling technique eliminating the need for air conditioning. Standard roofing materials like tin or shingles are replaced with “living roofs,” a surface covered entirely by grasses and plants, again providing both insulation and a method for natural cooling.
These represent but a few examples of new homes built in the community after The Changeover. This dedication to sustainable principles is simply one of the more visible examples that visitors might encounter on a visit to The Farm. With all of the homes set into or nestled along the edge of the forest, The Farm’s housing is in sync with the fundamental principles of permaculture, life integrated with nature.
Since its inception, the mission and message of The Farm Community has been expressed by its founding members. As those children who were born on the land transition into adulthood, they, along with their peers of a similar age who have been drawn to make The New Farm their home, the vision of a sustainable future, with people living in cooperation with one another, is expressed by a new set of voices that represent what The Farm is today.
Bico Casini was born in Ireland. His parents had left Tennessee to start a satellite farm in Europe in the late 70s. They returned when he was three and he grew up on The Farm, but left when he reached his early 20s. “When I graduated high school, I joined the construction crew and worked full-time. As soon as I had enough money, I bounced out and went to South Africa. I had learned about natural building and permaculture at the Eco-Village Training Center, and I went to South Africa to further that knowledge. I also traveled to India, and Sri Lanka and participated in a large conference about the development of eco-villages.”
“Upon returning, I came to truly realize how precious it is to have this land and how precious it is to have community. I better understand how fortunate we are to have the knowledge and technology that is here.”
“When you think about it, you have this whole piece of land that was the vision of the founding generation, and then you have an entire generation that was born on the land and grew up in that. The question becomes, “what do those people feel about that land? What are their ideas? What is their vision?” I would say we are trying to continue the vision of The Farm forward and honor the roots of our parent’ s values, but we also want to go beyond that and to use the new knowledge and wisdom that’s available to us now. I feel like nurturing the roots is so important in this day and age and it is so easy to always be looking for the greener pastures. I feel a certain sense of responsibility, you know, I have been given so much, I mean even how many parents fed me and took care of me. I want to give back. I have a lot of faith in the next generation, the young kids that are growing up your now. They are getting the best of everything the previous two generations have learned.”
Alayne Chauncey and her husband Jason Deptula were attracted to The Farm for many reasons, not the least of which was Alayne’s desire to live in a place that supported natural childbirth. “The allopathic model of the hospital did not resonate with me,” Alayne explains. “We came to meet with the midwives and liked the energy of the women here, and the men too! It really surprised me that the men of the community were just a supportive and excited about the impending birth as we were. We were looking around and wanted to live in a close knit community. We liked The Farm because it was child centered, it was family oriented. The emphasis on sustainability and outreach as expressed by things like the Eco-Ecovillage Training Center were also a draw for us.” Jason added, “It was just what we were looking for.”
“Being part of the next generation is exciting and a privilege and has afforded so many opportunities,” Tierra stated. Tierra McMahon was born on The Farm but left when her parents moved away around the time of The Changeover. She returned at the age of 14 when her mother moved back, spending her teenage years and transition to adulthood as part of The New Farm. “But it also involves responsibilities that I think many of us are just beginning to realize. There is a great need for more of the next generation to really be a part of this community. In doing that, we need to really pinpoint who we are and have a strong sense of identity and a sense of purpose about what we want to create here. I think that is our biggest challenge.”
Mark Hubbard was born on The Farm and now lives with his wife and child in the home that was once previously occupied by his parents. “I view The Farm is a large, extended family and a soul tribe, a group of people that have chosen on a conscious, spiritual level to come together and be a tribal people, and indigenous type of culture for our day and age.”
“I notice when I travel out in greater society that it is driven so much by production and consumption. Everything and everyone is focused on consuming, consuming, consuming, and what product are they going to purchase next to feel good about themselves or buy in order to make their reality a little bit better. In contrast, our life here on The Farm is centered around community. What time can we spend together? How can we enrich each other’s lives? There is an interconnection that holds it all together.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the generation that will inherit The Farm Community over the next 20 to 30 years is to increase their numbers, that is, the number of people who are in their early to late 30’s that will be in their 50’s and 60’s when those days roll around. Perhaps the biggest dynamic in that shift will be the amount of people sharing the costs of operation and maintenance of the community. As this is being written, approximately two thirds of The Farm’s members are from the founding generation. Most are still working and generating an income. As these members age and move into retirement and fixed or lower incomes, the burden of the community’s annual budget will be a budget shoulder by a progressively smaller group. Unless the population of the following generation is able to increase their numbers or they are able to develop a way for the community itself to generate an income to cover costs like annual land taxes, operation of the water system, maintenance of roads and public building and a host of other items, every individual will bear an increasingly larger burden of the cost.