...back to top of article

From 1971 to 1983, the Farm had a traditional communal economy like the Shakers or the Hutterites. After 13 years, it reorganized to give individual members a choice between simple membership and collectivity. While all residents belong to The Foundation, the communal experiment is called The Second Foundation and is optional. At present about a third of all adult members belong to this communal segment.

Since the reorganization, voluntary simplicity, in the sense of non-monetary subsistence and explorations in extractive and permacultural livelihoods, was not merely eroded, but was strongly discouraged, because failure to meet a $100/month "rent" obligation of every adult member became grounds for sanctions, including expulsion. Dependence on some favorable trade relationship with the outside culture was an unavoidable concomitant of residency. Personal income and income security became matters not merely of concern, but of emotional debate, both within families and within the community.

To outward appearances, the "liberalization" of The Farm's culture provided tangible improvements in the economy and diversity of the community. Inefficient, labor-intensive community services were cut back or eliminated, a steady budget reduced community debts to manageable levels, and marginally-democratic processes replaced earlier never-ending mass-town meetings and default rule by pragmatic oligarchies. The roads were improved, the water supply system was certified, houses started getting sided, insulated, remodeled and landscaped, and business revenues grew more stable and consistent.

By 1990, the "agreements" that characterized The Farm's unique cultural identity had taken a considerably different tack than the prevailing winds of earlier periods, such as 1980 or 1970. Decisionmaking by one or two small elected councils had largely replaced facilitated group process. Rules about lifestyle had virtually disappeared, except where overt acts of violence were involved. Nuclear family households supplanted large group households and extended families. Virtually everyone had a car, an outside telephone, a flush toilet, electricity, and television. Many people had regular access to a personal computer and/or a satellite dish. With the paving of the main road, the Farm has become increasingly difficult to distinguish physically from a "planned community" enclave for wealthy executives or retirees.

Inside, the conflict of ethical values was teeming. The pressure valve seemed to be the young people of the Farm. From 1990 to 1995, the children born in the peak fertility years for the Farm's founding families were reaching maturity and the independence that goes with it. A child born in 1972, the year the Farm was settled on its present land, would today be 23 years old. A child born 10 years later would now be 13. In that decade of the Seventies, more than 2,000 births occurred on the Farm. Owing to the mobility of the American population, the changes in the Farm in the 1980s, and other factors, most of those children did not grow up within the Farm - but about 130 of them remain there today. That group constitutes more than half of the present population of The Farm, and the values which it holds, and which it will bring to bear in coming years, will have a significant impact on the community.

Some of the children now living within the community left the Farm when their parents departed in or around the period of reorganization in the early 1980s. In their outside surroundings they often found themselves out of synch, not only with their mainstream peers, for whom violence, drugs and antisocial behaviors had become almost banal, but also with their neo-suburbanite parents, who suddenly seemed to have gone hypocritical, cutting their hair, donning ties, heels, and cologne, and arguing about money all the time. A large number of these marriages ended in divorce. Many of these children had emotional problems, some went to jail, some got mixed up with the wrong drugs, some ran away from home. But quite a few rediscovered the Farm, kept contact with their cohorts, and went back to find their roots.

Within the Farm, some children are similarly conflicted. Many of their parents' values have changed, placing higher importance on material acquisitions and self-improvement to the detriment of community-building and helping others. There is increased use of alcohol, greater numbers of absences from the community, such as for vacations and business travel, and the general diminution of the time resource, something that reflects an inverse proportion function to the use of advanced technology and contemporary business methods. As a result of these changes, many of the children of the Farm find their parents betraying the values they were raised to admire. While the teenage years are often a period of disillusionment with and disaffection for parents, the distance traveled to reach this point within the Farm is very great indeed because the departure is from something at the heart of the "intention" underlying the intentional community.

An intentional community is not necessarily dependent on its children for continued survival. There are many historical examples of groups which have lasted for extended periods of time primarily through ongoing recruitment of new members from the outside society. But an intentional community is very dependent on the maintenance of its intention, as its raison d'être.

Moreover, to many within the Farm, Farm children are extraordinary assets to the community by any measure: bright, industrious, highly principled, and achievement oriented. To lose them when they reach maturity is a significant loss.

But how does one keep a 20-year-old interested in a community that was based in the values and symbols of the hippie cultural milieu of the Sixties? What is there to draw them back from college or travel or work experiences elsewhere, and to invigorate them with a sense of purpose and limitless possibilities, a sense akin to that of the founders, but renewed and refreshed with the energy of youth?

Allen Butcher provides us with these definitions:6

COMMUNITY - A group of people sharing any common identity or characteristic, whether geographic, economic, political, spiritual, social, cultural, psychological or other.

CIRCUMSTANTIAL COMMUNITY - A group of people living in proximity by chance, such as in a city, neighborhood or village, the residents of which may or may not individually choose to be an active participant in the pre-existing association.

INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY - A fellowship of individuals and families living in geographic proximity and practicing common agreement and collective action.

To that list, I would add another. Robert Gilman has given us:

ECOVILLAGE - a full-featured human settlement in which human activities are harmless integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.7


In the early 1990s, a group of adults living within The Farm felt that such a draw might be found in "reinventing" the Farm, making it less a hippie church and more an ecovillage.

In 1993 a series of planning meetings were held which brought together not only members of The Farm but representatives from several national and international organizations involved in sustainable development. These included NGO personnel, Permaculture instructors, and community activists from Russia, Hungary, Senegal, Guatemala, and elsewhere. In 1994, with sponsorship from a number of charitable organizations, a house on the Farm was acquired and converted into a Farm Ecovillage Training Center, whose mission was "to provide a whole systems immersion experience of ecovillage living, together with classes of instruction, access to information, tools and resources, and on-site and off-site consulting and outreach efforts."

Since then, a number of short courses have been offered at the Training Center, including courses in Permaculture, alternative methods of ecological construction, midwifery and health care, and sustainable forestry. Each of these courses, as well as all of the construction work at the primary site, has relied upon the labor of the 15 to 20-year-old young people of The Farm.

Farm youth prepare the food and lodging for course participants, perform daycare services for infants, send out mailings to solicit customers, and clean up after the workshops. In essence, they run the program, and get to interact extensively with both visiting faculty and a very diverse group of students. The experience invigorates them with a sense of purpose and limitless possibilities, a sense akin to that of the founders of The Farm. Their attention has now expanded beyond the borders of the training center, to how they can "remake" the rest of the Farm to be more ecologically oriented.

In the Farm's model for "ecovillage," all systems are inter-related as in a dynamic living organism. Whole systems planning is utilized. Systems are built upon and spin off from one another, simulating the development, maintenance and resilience of healthy natural ecosystems. Any activity that helps preserve, restore, and create clean and healthy water, air, soil -- basic life support systems -- is to be included. Anything that does not preserve, restore, and create clean and healthy water, air and soil is to be avoided, mitigated, or eliminated. When people begin to build on this foundation, there is less time spent engaging in destructive habits, and more time spent finding workable accommodations that provide comparable comfort without the negative impacts historically associated with those lifestyles. Through this context change, multifaceted innovation is inspired.

I will just briefly mention a few obstacles which the program faces in this process of redefinition. First, there is the inertia of the community's sense of identity. The Farm's identity as an entrepreneurial research enterprise, Sixties utopia, or psychedelic church - antithetical definitions in some cases and none universally agreed to by all members - is strongly held by many.

While most Farm members, indeed most people, see themselves as "environmentalists," relatively few are willing to undergo personal sacrifice or diminution of their consumer lifestyles in order to reduce their personal impact on the environment. The Farm has far less per capita environmental impact than the average American community, but still relies extensively on petroleum vehicles for transportation, nuclear-generated electricity, and antiquated waste management practices.

There is also the cost of conversion. Since the per capita income of Farm members is substantially below the poverty line in America, and because improvements to infrastructure and efficiency are expensive, there is a severe disincentive to change to new, environmentally friendly, technologies and tools. While it can be shown that new appliances like fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid cars and non-CFC refrigerators actually save money, that does not eliminate the initial cost of an upgrade.

Finally, there are, even within The Farm, those who don't want children to remain in the community when they graduate from school. They would just as soon they moved off somewhere else to live. The motives for these attitudes vary and they are held by only a very small minority, but they nonetheless pose an obstacle to each child seeking admission to full voting membership, a process which involves community debate and voting.

Every ecovillage community is created in response to the problems and resources in its region at the level of understanding the participants have. Because that understanding, like nature, is constantly changing, an ecovillage itself is a dynamic on-going process. Over the past couple of years, The Farm has been working with ecovillage groups from other countries to support and promote new and already existing projects in sustainable village living, and also to better understand the dynamics of such processes, the obstacles which are commonly encountered, and innovations which are being undertaken to overcome these barriers.


The 250 present-day residents of The Farm have not rested on their laurels, but continue to create and demonstrate low-consumption, high-fulfillment lifestyles within a caring, socially active community; to conceive, finance and launch daring business enterprises that revolutionize the fields they compete in; to reduce the burden of external government; to mitigate the negative environmental, health and economic impacts of unsustainable global patterns; to demonstrate and export a variety of integrated social development strategies which can encourage diverse cultures worldwide to bypass unhealthy transitions; and to become a living example of the healthy and fulfilling interdependence of human and natural communities. This is the reborn vision with which it hopes to capture the imagination of another generation of inhabitants.

1 Albert Bates is president of the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology and program director of The Farm's Ecovillage Training Center, P.O. Box 90, Summertown TN 38483-0090 USA, 931-964-3992. Email: albert@thefarm.org. URL: http://www.thefarm.org/

2 "J. Edgar Hoover and The Farm: 20 years of FBI Surveillance," Communal Studies Assn. Annual Meeting (New Harmony IN, Oct. 20, 1993).

3 "The Changing Economy of The Farm," Green Revolution 50:4:1-5 (Winter, 1994).

4 "Technological Innovation in The Farm Spiritual Community 1972-1987," (mixed media) National Historical Communal Societies Association Annual Meeting, Bishop Hill, Illinois (Oct. 17, 1987); "Technological Innovation in a Rural Intentional Community, 1971-1987, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 8:2:183 (Feb 1989).

5 "Cracking the Hippie Metaprogram: 20 Years of Pragmatic Utopianism at The Farm," Utopian Studies Society Annual Meeting (St. Louis, Nov. 5, 1993)

6 Butcher, A.: "Classifications of Communitarianism: Sharing, Privacy and the Ownership and Control of Wealth," 1991.

7 Gilman, R. and D. Gilman, Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities, Context Institute, 1991.

Albert Bates

Some other works by Albert Bates available on-line:

Back to | The Farm | Intentional Communities