About Rabbits, Farms and Communities

After gliding into my intentional community learning journey at the Farm in Tennessee (see previous blog) for a weekend, I was starting to really get into exploration mode and being enthused by what has been created by passionate and dedicated people.

Travelling north from central Tennessee to north-eastern Missouri (>500km or 8 hrs travel by car), much along the mighty Mississippi River, passing through St. Louis (capital city of Missouri) into the rolling hills and fields of this remote rural area of the Midwest. Where much of the farming is around soybeans, corn or beef cattle farming on mostly medium-sized family farms, many run by a strong Mennonite community, hence a fairly traditional and conservative part of the country.

I was heading first to the well established ecovillage community of Dancing Rabbit, Rutledge Missouri (Rutledge is a village of 109 inhabitants with a small store and takeaway/dine in), where I was setting up base camp for my stay in this area, residing in a beautiful costume built strawbale building, the Milkweed Mercantile (a pub, bar, restaurant, store, a hub and B&B which is currently being converted from private ownership into a workers cooperative) and being pampered by the lovely hosts Alline and Kurt, long term residents in the village, who are also a treasure-trove of knowledge, experience and insights and being taken care of by Rae and of course not to forget about the cute dog Vergil.

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The Milkweed Mercantile

From this base I had 3.5 days to explore  Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, but also the nearby intentional communities of Sandhill Farm and Red Earth Farm, whose residents were all kind enough to have me at their places and spend some time with me showing me around and telling me about their places and communities. Because these three communities differ significantly from each other I will post separate blogs on each of them to really do them justice about what the places and communities are about and what they do. So let’s get on with it:

DANCING RABBIT ECOVILLAGE

The name Dancing Rabbit is quite appropriate because of the many rabbits which one finds hopping around the village at any time of the day and of course a name which sticks in your mind.

The community started in 1995 with an idea by a group of people in Berkley, California and it eventually came to fruition in 1997 when the founders came to north-eastern Missouri, where Sandhill Farm was a well established intentional community (since 1974) and they eventually found suitable land on an abandoned farm of 280 acres, just about 2.5 km from Sandhill community and Rutledge village.

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A small group of early “rabbits” started to get to work and from the beginning envisioned to create a real village, similar to closely clustered villages in Europe (and no cars in the village!) ideally with up to 1000 inhabitants, with a main square, main street, with businesses and shops,a community centre, surrounded by residences and having gardens and farmland further beyond. Land use zoning and planning was an important early task (and based on Permaculture and Pattern Language) and like many other communities the land is owned by a community land trust. Then of course putting all essential basic infrastructure into place, like roads, water supply, energy (in early years it was all on-site off-grid production), phone/internet and so forth, which of course takes some financial and manpower resources and hence takes some time to accomplish, not to mention to get agreement by all members on each and every detail of development and works (using consensus based decision-making).

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Now Dancing Rabbit has reached around 50 inhabitants, a number which fluctuates between 40 to 60, with some flux of people coming, staying for some time (years) and then leaving again (and some coming back later on) and a number have been living here for a long time (like Alline and Kurt since the early days).

There are a few dozen houses in existence in the village right now, with a few construction jobs going on at any one time. The community has a very strong emphasis on ecological sustainability, which can be found in the types of houses built here, which is very diverse in type, shape, size and form and details, but all are a form of sustainable and natural building, with many strawbale buildings (which appears very suitable for the climate), but also some cobb (not so good for the climate), and other experiential construction types, but on average are about half the size of average American homes, or about the size of homes in the 1950s (and I guess the same is true for Australian homes), reducing the ecological footprint and some are also what we would call tiny homes. Most have many sustainability features, like green roofs, double glazed windows, passive solar design, sustainable heating and cooling systems (but often complemented with wood stoves, using some wood sourced from the site and other sources), composting toilets are standard, rainwater capture, greywater treatment systems, renewable energy (solar PV and wind), and much more are utilised to varying degrees. The village has some onsite natural builders who get often involved in the various building projects, to the degree the owners want to. A fully “sustainable” natural family house can be built for around $25,000 if owners do a lot of the building work, but if not costs may rise to $50k or $75k depending on specs, size and details. The village has the advantage that the local county (local council) does not have any building regulations at all (and not even a building inspector), so anything goes, as long as accepted by the village residents. Houses come onto the “market” at times when people leave for various reasons and homes can be offered between $10k (a 3 season “tiny” home to say $150k, but overall prices are low due to remote location of village (i.e. low demand).

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The village has a number of common shared facilities, like a common house, which includes some facilities not included in individual homes, like laundry facilities, community showers and a number of community kitchens across the village, plus various shared spaces  for events and gatherings  including office spaces.

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Energy (i.e. electricity) was until a few years ago (I think 2010) supplied from on-site production (wind and solar), but with expansion of village and need for a costly replacement of battery banks, decided to go on-grid with the rule to produce twice as much energy on-site than is imported from the grid, hence using the grid as a sort of balancing and temporary storage for the system, where often too much was produced and at other times too little.

One interesting element of the community is the rule that residents are not allowed to own a car, but have to rely on a car sharing coop, which in this remote location can cause some difficulty for some members or prospective members, especially if  they do work outside the village. Aside from the village coops for various purposes, a number of villagers have developed their own businesses (often online) depending on their interests and skills. But having and creating sufficient opportunities for residents to earn a living (even though living costs are low, in general around $8k to $10k per person per year including a portion (2%) of external income paid to a community fund for operating and maintaining all infrastructure and community services. Lack of income opportunities has so far been one of the reasons for slow growth of the village, which is envisioned to house up to 300 people in the future (or up to 1000 if more land can potentially be purchased if needed), which would also provide for more internal livelihood opportunities (including farming of various types and forms, like veggies, crops, orchards, livestock but also others like a cafe, educational centre, maybe a bakery etc) within the community, a classic catch 22 situation, unfortunately.

Another issue, which is also coming up more frequently in other communities, is of how to deal with the elderly or terminally ill in the community. Not only does it need suitable physical infrastructure (e.g. few or no stairs), but also support and services, which for small communities is difficult to deal with, particularly with some of the older communities facing the issue right now. Something to observe how this topic may develop and be solved (or not) in various communities, where for mot (if not all having the intention to retain the elderly within the community). More on this in a future blog.

Most people grow some food around their houses, and have larger plots of personal garden space a few minutes walk from the village. Even though larger scale agriculture has not yet been started at Dancing Rabbit, a reasonable portion of produce is provided from the land and a number of food coops, not only share produce and produced food (e.g. preserves), but also do bulk buying from the outside (e.g. from Sandhill) and also share meals a number of times during the week as part of being member of a food coop.

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The village also has its own local currency the “ELM” (Exchange Local Money), which is fully electronic and can be used for all monetary transactions on-site and also includes offsite entities (e.g. Sandhill Farm and Red Earth Farm and others) and is used by approximately 60 individuals and 30 businesses, nonprofits, co-ops, and community groups in rural northeast Missouri and currently more than $100,000 worth of currency is in circulation (1:1 exchange to US$).

The land is owned by a not for profit community land trust, but houses are owned by the residents (and as said can be sold by them). Membership and resident status is achieved through a process of first going through a 3 week visitor program (which can be done by anyone just interested in the community, without a desire to live there and is run a number of times during warmer times of the year), which includes some good education and training on various topics of sustainable and community living (and a group of 12 woman started such a visitor experience when I got there (a womans only event for that intake), and other people do internships or work exchanges for the community (like WOOFing). If one wants to live there one can apply for membership, which is reviewed by village council and if accepted can live there (renting a space) for first 6 months after which a review occurs and if accepted as member will get a plot of land one can start building one’s own home (with main services like electricity, internet connected (the village is  just getting fibreoptic Internet access delivered into the village, even in such a remote area).

Dancing Rabbit is based on a clear mission statement:

To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably.*

To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research.

*Sustainably: In such a manner that, within the defined area, no resources are consumed faster than their natural replenishment, and the enclosed system can continue indefinitely without degradation of its internal resource base or the standard of living of the people and the rest of the ecosystem within it, and without contributing to the non-sustainability of ecosystems outside.

This is translated into a number of ecological covenants, sustainability guidelines, and membership agreements which are used as guidance for life in the village, into which a lot of effort and thought has been invested.

The governance of the village was by consensus of the whole village (all adult members), but once more than 35 adults it became too difficult for consensus based decision-making and a village council with 7 elected members was put in place, with oversight by the board of directors (a legal requirement of operating as land trust). Major decisions are made by the village council with right for input and full transparency by all members. Other decisions are delegated to various committees (like visitors, members, energy systems,,  etc) with 2 to 4 members, again with input and participation from all members. As is common for intentional communities members are expected to participate and contribute to governance and operation and maintenance of community and facilities. Living in community can be challenging at times and similar to other communities Dancing Rabbit used NVC (non-violent communication) approaches to resolve conflicts and other approaches commonly used at DR include personal/internal work, emotional processing, informal counseling/support, and support groups of various kinds. Formal and informal mediation is also available when people need help to work through conflict.

The village has a strong connection and interaction with the surrounding intentional communities (Sandhill and Red Earth Farms), with some members have lived in the other communities in past or vice versa and  a lot of trade and regular common events occurs between communities (also including the Possibility Alliance some 50 km from Dancing Rabbit another fully off-grid intentional community (they do not even have a website hence getting in contact with them to arrange a visit was a bit tricky). The village has a good connection and friendly relations with surrounding outside communities (Rutledge and farms), which appears fairly tolerant of and to some extent supportive of what Dancing Rabbit is set out to achieve.

Many children in the village do home schooling and for entertainment and recreation the village needs to come up with its own events and activities, which I guess in summer is not so difficult with forests and woods around, swimming pond and so forth, but also learning experiences (be it to work in the gardens, learn about permaculture, do forest and grassland restoration etc) more initiatives for winter are required (but can do cross country skiing and snow-shoe walking), which appears to work quite well in the village.

Age diversity appears reasonably balanced (whatever that means) in the village, with a wide-spread from small kids to few elderly residents. Cultural and “class” diversity is more limited (at the moment most or all or white) with a high percentage of highly (university or college) educated residents – something which is very common in many intentional communities (- a white educated middle class endeavour? – something which is fairly often discussed in communities, but not easily resolved (if at all). See this interesting article for more on that: Diversity and Homogeneity in Intentional Community

Some other important topic discussed in the village is ways and options to increase outreach and education of communities outside the village, to improve knowledge about sustainable living and re-creation of communities in the wider social network. A particularly difficult challenge for a remote community like Dancing Rabbit.

Overall the feeling  leaves me with is that it is a very quiet, relaxed and laid back but also very friendly and welcoming and inclusive place, with strong caring community (as it is of course intended I guess), strong nature connection (which is at the doorstep) to some extent facilitated by the remoteness of the village it provides for a slow and quaint lifestyle, which in some sense may appear fairly basic to some, but still has a lot of the normal mod-cons available as well (e.g. fast internet access). It would certainly not be for city slickers but an interesting and beautiful example of how to create community in a very remote environment, demanding a higher degree of self-reliance in a number of ways by the community. But of course it has its challenges (some described in the blog) to make a living possible and viable in this place not least it needs a fair bit of idealism, lots of dedication, persistence, tolerance, inventiveness, can do attitude, flexibility, open to learning, trying and doing new things, and of course a caring, kind and compassionate mindset.

If you would like to know more about Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and/or maybe visit the place (for a day or two or for the 3 week visitor program) have a look at their very informative and detailed website (with much more details on all of the things and issues I have described in the blog) on

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

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Next time will be about Sand Hill Farm an egalitarian community. So long!

 

 

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Author: Peter Gringinger

Cultural Creative | Evolutionary Activist | Change Agent | Whole Systems, Transition & Regenerative Designer, Educator, Leader and Facilitator | Peter is a cultural creative, working as radical evolutionary activist and change agent through the use of whole systems, transition and regenerative design to provide support through integral and participatory facilitation for individuals, groups, neighbourhoods, communities and organisations to co-create and co-design our sustainable futures of regenerative and thriving cultures, places, environments and local but globally networked livelihoods. Peter believes in order to tackle and resolve the many interconnected issues and threats we are facing we need to take a whole and integral person and systems approach so that we can strive to (co)-create true sustainability and regeneration of our presence on this planet and to create health and wellbeing for all (humans and non-humans). We have to work on creating bridges between the various ideas and views of the world, to embrace the diversity and work through use of transformative innovation to shift us into a new worldview of cooperation, abundance regeneration and using transformative resilience for a just and equitable future founded on self-reliant local but globally connected communities. Originally trained as a geologist and hydrogeologist and obtaining further postgraduate training in renewable energy technology (geothermal) and in environmental sciences and engineering, he has worked as consultant to support clients in managing challenging environmental impacts from past commercial and industrial processes and facilities, including the assessment and clean-up of polluted soils and waters, environmental risk assessment & management, water resources and waste management. Peter has worked on projects across Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Philippines, Austria, Italy and Iceland. His clients have included local, state and federal governments, organisations including those within the defence and private sector for the production and use of explosives/ammunitions and chemicals, infrastructure sectors of road, rail, ports and airports; private sector clients including manufacturers and petrochemical companies, as well as major property developers, financiers, lawyers, insurers and land owners, waste management companies including landfill operators. Hence Peter has extensive experience in Project and Program Management for small to large scale projects and programs. In recent years Peter has completed further extensive personal development, training and skills acquisition and capability in Sustainability, Permaculture, Sustainability and Integral Leadership, Participatory Facilitation, Applied Ecopsychology, Integral and Systems Thinking, Whole Systems, Transition, Sustainable & Regenerative Design, Ecovillage Design, and provides input and support for individuals, groups, communities and organisations for the co-creation and co-design of sustainable futures and provides advice for personal and organisational change and transformation. Peter is currently the Acting Head of Innovation for Gaia Education, a certified Trainer with Gaia Education, an active member of the Leadership circle of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) Australia and a GEN Ambassador for Australia and on the National Committee of Cohousing Australia.

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