Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Farm: A modern collective

I know it isn’t strictly Mormon history, but given the recent string of articles on Mormon communal living here, here, and here (aka the United Order or the Order of Enoch) I thought this might have something to add to the conversation.

In 1971, a group of what can only be described as hippies, descended upon Lewis County, Tennessee. Part of what helped them choose this location was that Tennessee law, by then, was somewhat more tolerant of “unconventional religions” than most states. Well, that and Tennessee had cheap land. Even so, Lewis County had a history of dealing with religious outsiders harshly, so I was surprised to find this community was not chased out. But even that concern was part of the decision. If they could make it work in the Bible Belt, they could do it anywhere.

The organization was the brain child of Stephen Gaskin, an erstwhile marine, professor, LSD user and spiritual guru. I’m not really that interested in the doctrines of this particular group, but I thought their practices of communal living might be instructive.

Unlike other hippie groups, The Farm quickly became monogamous, but did not start that way. Group marriages existed at first but the change evolved from a pragmatic understanding of how to eliminate potential problems in the group. In fact, pragmatism seemed to be a hallmark of the group’s organization.

Initially people lived in the converted school buses that brought them to Tennessee. Later, large tents were used and eventually frame homes. These homes were built to house about 50 people in self assigned groups. The groups selected where and when to build on the property (just under 2,000 acres). A communal kitchen was built, but most households chose to cook for themselves. The community also built a laundry, generated electricity, created a water system, and even a phone company.

They dealt with that same issues Mormon communities did: bored teenagers, individuals not pulling their weight, and conflict due to differing levels of “spirituality”. They learned just how much hard work it took to support the collective; far more than was expected. To generate badly needed cash they hired out for construction work (sound familiar) and for farm work. Of course, they farmed their own land, but they also published books, and built cottage industries.

In 1983, the commune was forced to “decollectivise” due to mounting debt. From then on only the land was held collectively. Membership dropped from a peak of 1,500 to about 200 in just two years. The Farm still exists, although very little farming goes on. You can even arrange for a tour. But ultimately, the collective nature of the Farm was unsustainable.

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