In The Farm Then and Now (New Society Publishers, 2014), author Douglas Stevenson presents the story of a group that has defied the odds, blending idealism with a practical approach to intentional community and creating a model for sustainable living. In the following excerpt, communal living is explored as members learn to operate collectively for the good of the community.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Farm Then and Now.
A Village Should be Human Scale
A village should be relatively small, a size that lets everyone know each other and interact on a daily basis. The network of connections becomes like an ecosystem in itself, sustaining the community. For over 40 years, The Farm has placed a high priority on the importance of family relationships. Its population size allows members to develop multiple circles of friends and connections on many different levels. Residents live, work, play and explore unlimited ways to cooperate with each other.
The Farm is a Full-featured Settlement
The Farm has many of the aspects of a small town, numerous neighborhoods, a town center, a clinic, its own water system, over five miles of roads, a dozen public buildings, a swimming hole and sandy beach, a community center, kid parks, multiple businesses and much, much more.
Farm Midwives deliver the community’s newest residents. The Farm’s cemetery has over 80 former (or one could say permanent) residents. Life on The Farm goes full circle.
With its own store supplying staples and a wide assortment of items, a good number of people may stay inside the community for days, even weeks on end, with no reason to make a trip into town or ever leave.
The Farm School has always been an important institution in the community. Its survival past the economic change has allowed it to continue as a focal point for community relations, bringing together young and old from across the community. People pay for student tuitions, participate as teachers, pull off fundraisers and help organize celebrations and other activities. The School also serves as a way to attract like-minded families with young children, new members bringing fresh energy to the community. Frequently families will also move into the local area specifically so their child or children can attend The School. In that way, The School extends the sense of community well beyond The Farm’s borders.
One of the most important ways The Farm Community benefits its members and residents is as the hub for social activities and events. The combination of a rural lifestyle and an active social environment can fulfill the need for personal interaction, something that can be missing for those living on isolated rural homesteads. Even someone committed to city life may find The Farm offers greater opportunities for personal connection, builds deeper friendships and has a wider range of networking opportunities, while avoiding the downsides like endless traffic, a higher cost of living and other demands that eat away at personal time.
If anything, The Farm’s bountiful social calendar can be almost overwhelming, with seemingly endless choices ranging from the practical, through participation on committees and governing bodies, to the ever-frequent parties, potlucks and festivities. Of course, the social dynamic can be also limited, especially for young single people who want the action of a city, and the chance to meet new people. Ideally, an ecovillage is energy-independent, generating its own clean renewable energy. Several very large and small photovoltaic arrays produce electricity throughout The Farm, but they generate only a percentage of the power consumed by the entire community. Virtually all homes and businesses on The Farm are connected to the grid and standard electrical power. Equipment and installation costs for solar electric systems remain prohibitively high, and cannot be economically justified by the majority of families and businesses who face the same financial struggles as people do anywhere.
The solar arrays on The Farm utilize what is known as a grid tie system, in which the power they produce is fed directly back into the grid. This eliminates the need for batteries that require maintenance, have a limited life span and usually contain lead or lithium. There are tradeoffs even in green energy production that must be factored in. The Farm still holds clean and independent energy production as a goal and ideal, something that will be achieved when it becomes truly affordable.
Local food production is typically considered a fundamental aspect of ecovillages. The Farm has a large concentration of home gardens, but they supply only a portion of the food consumed by the community’s residents. However, it is located in the midst of a strong agricultural area with a large population of Amish and Mennonite farmers who generate an abundant supply of local produce. Again, people on The Farm must maintain the balance between idealism and practical application. They are not separate from the realities of life in the modern world, facing the same cost of living as their neighbors in Tennessee and all Americans. Having a job or developing a career can leave little opportunity for the extensive amount of time and commitment required to come close to growing all the food needed for a complete and healthy diet. It can be far more practical for some members to purchase homegrown produce from Amish neighbors at a fraction of the cost required to grow it. They are still supporting local community agriculture, just not within the borders of the Farm ecovillage.
Gardeners on The Farm find what works best for them, whether it is fresh organic lettuce for salads, tomatoes for canning or greens for winter. The beauty of The Farm’s climate is that a dedicated gardener can indeed grow nearly all of their food, a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, even grains and beans. A garden and a greenhouse can produce food all year-round. For most members, the art of gardening on The Farm is undertaken as much for the spiritual connection to the earth and the seasons, a quiet time of mediation, as the songs of birds fill the air. Gardening brings a sense of pleasure, a benefit of rural living with fruitful and delicious rewards.
At the same time, members of The Farm see farming and food production, the development of the community’s orchards and management of the land as critical components of preparing for the future. Organic treatments to the fields, solar irrigation to fenced-in plots producing food and expansions to gardens are all underway. Experiments in growing protein and grains on a small scale have proven that, should the necessity arise, sustainable food production can be achieved. Beans and corn were staples in the South for generations, including for the original Native Americans, and that day could come again. So much will change over the next several decades, with many unknowns surrounding the economy, food costs and availability and climate change. The Farm’s maintained fields are an investment in its future, land that can pump out a lot of food.
The Farm’s internal economy also demonstrates the combined effect of collectivity and working together. Imagine the following series of events: A person hired a Farm carpenter to do repairs. The carpenter got a massage from a body worker. The massage therapist paid a friend to clean his home. The housecleaner also taught at The Farm School, but was unable to make one of her classes, so she hired yet another friend to substitute. That substitute wasn’t relying on the income from her day as a teacher at The School, so she took the money and purchased art supplies for the kids. It is a win-win-win situation and a classic example of circulating money within The Farm economy before sending it out the door.
Reprinted with permission from The Farm Then and Now: A Model for Sustainable Living by Douglas Stevenson and published by New Society Publishers, 2014. Buy this book from our store: The Farm: Then and Now.