Days and weeks before take off onto my 6 months intentional communities learning journey have been hectic to stressful with endless many preparations and organizing and last-minute shuffling and tweaking of schedules and events but eventually hitting the skies on 26 May 2016 and after the usual 24 hour marathon travel time touching down in the eastern states of the US (starting in Tennessee flying to Nashville). And from my arrival and a shortish car travel was getting right into the thick of community living with my visit to one of the first intentional communities/Ecovillages around:
THE FARM – Summertown, Tennessee
I attended a Conference on Community and Sustainability at the Farm (27 to 29th May 2016), organised and run by Douglas Stevenson, long term member of the Farm (since 1973) and Earth Activist, Author, Artist, Entrepreneur, Speaker and much more.
The Farm was founded in 1971 by a caravan of 80 white school buses and assorted other vehicles carrying 320 hippie idealists who were travelling from California around the country and eventually landed on an abandoned farm in central Tennessee. They had a mission: to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to follow a peaceful and spiritual path, and to make a difference in the world. They established a community, which in the early years was run as a commune and over time they were able to purchase a total of 1750 acres of land, partly forested by beautiful and lush green Oak forests, partly pastures and meadows, and started to work the land (something they had to learn with the help of local farmers ) to feed to growing population in the commune as well as build all infrastructure from scratch (moving from tents and buses into communally shared houses, building roads, water, waste and social and other infrastructure). The initial commune was highly self-sufficient, even though living a basic but for many very fulfilling lives. They were probably one of the first Vegan communities, no livestock was held or used on the land, no guns and hence hunting were (and still are) allowed on the land either.
Over time the population grew and grew and at its peak reached around 1700 people and many more visitors coming through every year, with a number of internally and externally operating businesses (lots in farming and construction/renovation) as well as reaching out into world with the organisation Plenty International, running various development projects in the less wealthy countries or regions of the global south & north (e.g. Guatemala earthquake reconstruction, community farming in Belize, community work in the Bronx in NYC, etc). Over time the community was also able to acquire additional land nearby, to create a forest sanctuary, with the total area of land around 4000 acres – a real heaven for wildlife and people as well.
With the oil shock in the early 1980s and neoliberal politics starting to take hold things got very difficult for the community to sustain themselves as a commune and a Change Over occurred, from a commune to an intentional community, which allowed for personal incomes, personally owned businesses and properties/houses, with communal financing and operation and maintenance of shared facilities (e.g. roads, water, waste, store, school, post office, community meeting place (the Dome), a beautiful swimming pond, a Sauna, etc). But it also meant that people were responsible for their own finances and incomes and ways to support themselves, and farming for the community was largely abandoned, due to cost inefficiencies (could not compete against cheaply produced food from the outside). A number of businesses were established on site which still flourish including a publishing company, midwifery (well-respected and known in the US for promoting natural home births), Geiger counter production, Tofu & Tempeh making, Ecovillage Training Centre (much Permaculture related training, but also everything related to sustainable living and community), Yoga Centre, Mushroom growers, a community store, and others, as well as a number of individual businesses catering for on-site but also for off-site and wider communities. For example the Farm school provides primary and secondary education available to all Farm children, and they use a very liberal approach to education (based on Holocracy but also including some ideas from Rudolph Steiner; but of course have to follow some rules) but is also to people from the outside (which is well-regarded in the community particularly for children who do not fit well into the public school system) and additionally they provide support and services to home schoolers outside the Farm in the wider community (including adult schooling). Home schooling appears relatively common in rural communities partly due to distances from and to places where schools are available.
Environmental, sustainability and social justice activism continues and is alive and well with a number of organisation reaching out into the world, promoting the values and beliefs of the community, like the Peace Roots Alliance and Plenty International.
Also a number of ex-Farm members or people who are aligned with the values of the Farm have bought land and properties in surrounding areas off-site from the Farm (for example some people wanted to raise and use livestock), and providing for an extended like minded community, radiating out into the wider area (all the way to Nashville at least).
After the Change Over the population dropped and particularly during the 1990s the community appeared to find it difficult to attract younger generations to the Farm. However, more recently there is more interest again from people, including families moving to the Farm. The current population is around 170 residents and around 20 to 40 visitors, students and interns at any given time. Becoming a member of the Farm is a fairly involved and lengthy process and goes through various stages of membership and can take up to 4 to 6 years before one may be accepted as full member of the community and allowed to build a home on the land (but one is allowed or required to live there beforehand). At the moment when accepted as member there is a one-off $4k joining fee and all members contribute approximately $100 per month to a pooled fund, which is used to run and operate the community and also for various community projects. Living costs in the community are relatively low and one could come by with approximately $8k to $10k per year for all expenses. The costs of building a home vary largely depending on the type and size of shelter one wants to build and what level of personal input and labour one can or wants to put into, but there is no additional cost for the plot of land one gets upon becoming a member.
As can be seen from the pictures, the Farm is less a compact village, but more dispersed residential development concentrated along a number of roads which run through the vast Farm property. Building styles vary considerably, from old cedar wood double story homes, which were built in the early commune days, often occupied by up to 30 to 50 people, but now used as family homes for 1 to 2 families (and often were upgraded and expanded over time), to old buses (from the early days), conventional homes, kit homes (cheap), strawbale, mudbrick, Weatherboard homes (with often high recycled content), earth shelters, Cob homes, etc. The community does not appear to impose any strict guidelines or regulations onto new builds and local council (or county) regulations seem very relaxed about buildings. Many people have own gardens at or near their houses, but also a community garden was established some years ago for people who want to provide more of their food from the land (again).
The community is connected to outside services (but have their own water supply from an on-site groundwater well) like electricity and internet, but a community grid-connected solar PV system was installed in recent years (69 kW capacity) and provides some of the electricity used. Waste water appears to be largely dealt with through individual septic systems. A high degree of recycling occurs, with many people also composting green and kitchen waste for use on gardens.
The Farms calls itself a Spiritual community (reflected in one of the early names of one of the legal entities – The Church of the Farm), however are open to all faiths and religious (or non-religious) denominations, and is up to individuals to decide if and what spiritual path they want to pursue (if any). Some of the members include various Buddhist philosophies and practices into their lives.
The Farm community operates under few basic agreements (for example one of the few rules are no guns, they do not keep livestock (other than chicken), but is founded on compassion, non-violence, respect and kindness for all other beings (human or non-human), participation and responsibility, living lightly on the earth and sharing the bounty.
The Farm has various legal entities, like a community land trust (for communal ownership of the land), with a board, various committees (e.g. for membership), subcommittees, where decisions are delegated to and where with use of supermajority (75%) decisions are made (with attempts to achieve consensus decisions if possible).
I was lucky to not only attend the community conference and mingle with a number (25 others) like-minded people from across the US, wanting to find out more about this community and ecovillages in general, with various ideas and stages of development in this space (for some it was the first visit to such a community, for others it was to get more inspirations and knowledge for their own ecovillage already in development). I was also lucky enough staying with a couple who were amongst the founders of the Farm community in 1971 (Judith and James Dogde), getting some additional perspectives and stories (too much to share all here, including a bunch of pictures particularly from the “good old days”, which I have to say must have been very hard work early on).
And with having a party and live concert (with Farm musicians of course including our conference host Douglas) included as part of the weekend, it made it an inspiring experience and an amazing start into my learning journey, but in any case a great time of the year to visit here, when abundance of nature is just exploding (can’t see it this lush and green in Australia’s south-east – we just do not have such distinct seasons).
This is it for today and spending the coming days in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural northern Missouri, and will also visit nearby communities of Sandhill Farm and Red Earth Farm. So another blog will follow some time soonish. 😉
Further resources (there are many for this well established community):