Rural Intentional Communities

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Rural communities can have homesteading, LGBTQ, spiritual, and/or eco-friendly focuses.
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“Finding Community” by Diana Leafe Christian highlights appealing living alternatives for like-minded people who seek to create a family-oriented and ecologically sustainable lifestyle.

Finding Community(New Society, 2007) by Diana Leafe Christian presents a thorough overview of ecovillages and intentional communities and offers solid advice on how to research thoroughly, visit thoughtfully, evaluate intelligently and join gracefully. Intentional communities or ecovillages are an appealing choice for like-minded people who seek to create a family-oriented and ecologically sustainable lifestyle — a lifestyle they are unlikely to find anywhere else. This section shines on what rural communal living is like.

Homesteading Communities

Classic back-to-the-land rural homesteading communities focus on growing food and/or raising livestock, and practicing the necessary homesteading skills for living a self-reliant country life. In some homesteading communities everyone works on the land, for example, when the community has a farming or food-producing operation. In others, while people grow much of their own food onsite, they also earn income through their own small onsite businesses or by working in nearby towns.

The 11 members of Birdsfoot Farm live on a 73-acre agricultural property in upstate New York with woods, a stream, and community buildings. In their two-acre vegetable garden they grow certified organic produce for their CSA farm, local retail outlets, the local farmer’s market, and their own use. They also operate Little River School, employing three teachers and serving local students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Their vegetable business and Little River School provide income to some of their members, while others work in jobs off the property. As in many rural communities, Birdsfoot Farm members are active on social justice and environmental issues.

Sandhill Farm, in rural northeast Missouri, has 135 acres and 5 year-round members, assisted by many interns who live onsite during the growing and harvesting seasons. Sandhill Farm’s land includes gardens, orchards, woods, hayfields, cropland, bee yards, and pastures. An income-sharing commune, Sandhill members earn money by growing organic sorghum, soybeans, and herbs, and processing and selling sorghum syrup, tempeh, garlic, mustard, horseradish, and honey. They also generate an income by doing administrative work for the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), whose office is on their property. One Sandhill member offers group process consulting nationwide; another is an organic farm inspector. “We like to keep our lifestyle simple and healthy,” they note on their website. “We tend to work hard, especially during the growing season, and get satisfaction from providing for ourselves as much as we can while maintaining close ties with neighbors, friends, and other communities. Core values include cooperation, nonviolence, honesty, and working through conflict.”

The 7 members of Edges community, who live on 94 acres of wooded and cleared hills near Athens, Ohio, also grow and put up much of their own food from their organic gardens. And while community members do many homesteading tasks, including gardening, ordering community food, maintenance, construction, land restoration, and permaculture projects, many also have fulltime work on the property or offsite. One Edges member operates a successful renewable energy design and installation business; two others operate an onsite bed and breakfast and Wellness Center; and one is a psychologist at Ohio University. Other members work at a cooperative bakery in Athens, do book editing at home, or market ecofriendly air filters.

The dozen members of Windward Community, on 111 acres near Klickitat, Washington, raise fiber sheep and dairy goats. Part of their mission and purpose, notes their website, is to “interweave the skills of the past with appropriate technology to create a hands-on, back-to-basics way to practice right livelihood.”

Sometimes a rural community has a village-like setting, such as Morninglory Community near Killaloe, Ontario, with 14 members in 9 separate households scattered over 100 hilly acres. “We homestead in varying degrees, use only solar electricity and wood heat, and grow organically most of our fruits and veggies. We’ve spent 30 years learning how to be good neighbors, which has been a worthwhile process.” One community family runs a home-based, ecologically friendly business, Cool Hemp, providing an organic hempseed frozen dessert.

While many rural communities like these value ecological sustainability, and many grow much of their own food, they aren’t ecovillages. Many were founded in the ’60s and ’70s, before the concept of ecovillages existed, and most are not attempting to be model demonstration sites or to influence the wider culture, per se. Some, in fact, are fairly insular, seeking to just live a simple life in the country with family and friends. Yet Sandhill Farm grows perhaps 80 percent of its own food, an amount far higher than most aspiring ecovillage projects, and all of Morninglory’s households are off the grid, which is not true yet of most ecovillages.

Some of the benefits of living in rural communities are obvious: for example, the opportunity to live where it’s peaceful, quiet, and often beautiful, and to experience a pitch-black sky dotted with brilliant stars at night — to actually see the Milky Way. If you’re interested in food self-reliance, living in a rural homesteading community offers an opportunity to grow much more of your own food than you could in an urban or suburban setting. In rural counties, unlike urban and suburban areas, you would be free to have chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, and larger livestock animals. Building codes are often less enforced in rural counties, and there are often few to no zoning regulations. This means that a rural community has more freedom to have many members live there, to build smaller-than-normal dwellings, and to build with straw, bale, cob, or adobe bricks, or to use compost toilets, constructed wetlands, roof-water catchment, and so on. Another advantage for people moving from urban areas is that people tend to need less money for housing and monthly expenses living in rural communities that they would in urban areas.

The primary disadvantage, however, is the relative lack of job opportunities in rural areas. As you can see in the above examples, either everyone works on the farm or in the garden (as at Birdsfoot Farm and Sandhill Farm), or works partly at the home site and earns money from home-based businesses, or works in town. In must rural towns there are few job opportunities, and usually those that exist are of the most rudimentary, minimum wage kind. Local employers tend to prefer hiring people they’ve known all their lives, not necessarily newcomer city slickers from the local intentional community. Rural communities tend to work well for telecommuters, people with home-based businesses, people who can easily plug into community-based farm work, people who already have a source of income, or people willing to travel offsite frequently to earn money, such as consultants. Other disadvantages include the need to travel long distances to get most places, which can use up a lot of gas, and the sense of isolation that can occur in a rural community, particularly if the community has relatively few members and is culturally different from, or not much connected with, its rural neighbors.

Conference and Retreat Centers

Conference and retreat center communities, located in rural or semi-rural locations, offer their own workshops — on ecological sustainability, environmental activism, personal growth topics, and/or spiritual subjects — and often provide a venue for the courses and workshops of other groups as well. Sometimes these centers also operate schools or summer camps. Usually a small number of members live there year-round, assisted by a large number of interns or work exchangers who live in the community only during the guest season.

Lost Valley Educational Center, for example, is an 87-acre property of meadows, forest, and a creek, not far from Eugene, Oregon. Lost Valley members grow much of their own food in their large gardens and greenhouses, and operate a 150-bed conference and retreat center. Besides renting these facilities to outside groups who host workshops and courses, Lost Valley offers its own programs, including a two-month residential Ecovillage and Permaculture Certificate Program and the Heart of Now personal growth workshops. About 18 people live in the community year-round, some of whom work in the conference center quarter-time to full-time, and others who work at other home-based businesses or commute to Eugene.

Another example is Sowing Circle Community in Occidental, California, which leases most of its 80-acre property and its two locally famous heirloom organic gardens to its affiliated nonprofit, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC). The Center offers public courses in permaculture design, bio-intensive organic gardening, heirloom seed saving, and even how to start new intentional communities. Like many communitarians, Sowing Circle members are dedicated environmental activists, so OAEC also runs environmental ethics and activist programs, for example, to train environmental activists, stop local pesticide spraying, outlaw genetically modified foods in their county, add water-resource management to the county’s General Plan, and establish organic gardens and organic gardening education in northern California schools. About half the 11 community members work for OAEC; the rest have teaching or activist jobs in Sonoma County or nearby Santa Rosa.

Rowe Camp and Conference Center is a 45- acre Christian community (Unitarian Universalist) in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. Some of the community’s 15 year-round members serve as resident staff for the conference center and their annual children’s summer camp, assisted by temporary work-study members who live there from 6 weeks to a year. Other community members work at jobs offsite.

Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center, an off-grid spiritual community on 155-acres with a hot springs by a river in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, uses geothermal and microhydro to generate power. The community’s guests, up to 25,000 annually, soak in the hot springs and take courses on holistic healing, spirituality, and other topics. “Our primary service is to provide a healing retreat and conference center that promotes holistic health and spiritual growth,” reads their website. “We mutually support and respect each person’s dignity, and awaken to the Spirit within each of us that acknowledges we are all One.” Long-term community members and many shorter-term members, ranging from 50 to 90 people total, run the retreat and conference center as a worker-owned co-op, and live their more private community lives in small dwellings across the river from the guest facilities.

Mount Madonna Center, also a spiritual community, is located on 355 acres in the Santa Cruz mountains of California. Led by the Indian teacher Baba Hari Das, Mount Madonna runs a conference center which hosts up to 14,000 workshop participants each year. The community also operates a children’s school, serving students from preschool through high school. Mount Madonna’s 100 members focus on yoga and service, and many serve as volunteers for the conference center and school. “We share in work, vegetarian meals, spiritual practices, rituals, and play, and strive to live by positive values, “notes their website.

Centers like these, like rural homesteading communities, offer the benefits of peaceful, quiet, beautiful settings, as well as the opportunity to serve others, and to take many courses and workshops onsite. Another benefit is that they provide jobs in the community-owned conference center business. The downside is that these jobs usually pay minimum wage, or just room and board in the community and perhaps a small stipend for workers, and there often aren’t enough jobs for all community members, so some must work outside the community. A common dynamic in conference center communities is the tension between the purpose of the business, which is usually to serve guests well and stay Financially solvent, and the purpose of the community itself, which is usually to share resources, cooperate in decision-making and work tasks, and enjoy a sense of connection with one another.

The Many Faces Of Community

As you can see, many urban and rural intentional communities don’t fit in any single “kind of community” category, but in several all at once. In fact, the idea of “kinds of communities” and “categories” is an oversimplification, used just to give a quick overview of what’s out there.

For example, EcoVillage at Ithaca is both an ecovillage and cohousing. Temescal Commons in Oakland is a Christian community and a cohousing community. Jesus People USA in downtown Chicago is a Christian community and a large urban group household. Miccosukkee Land Co-op in Florida is a rural community and a co-op.

Some homesteading communities with a spiritual focus, such as The Farm in Tennessee are also spiritual communities. Some gay men’s communities, such as Ida and Short Mountain, are also homesteading communities. Some retreat and conference centers, like Rowe Camp and Conference Center, are also Christian communities; others, like Breitenbush Hot Springs and Mount Madonna Center, are also spiritual communities. Lama Foundation, Ananda Village, and Abode of the Message are spiritual communities as well as retreat and conference centers. Camphill communities are simultaneously spiritual communities, rural homesteading communities, service communities — and some believe they’re also ecovillages.

Rural Communities

More from Finding Community:

Excerpted with permission from Finding Communityby Diana Leafe Christian. Published by New Society Books, © 2007.

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