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Final Research Report: The Rise and Fall of The Farm

The Farm, one of the most famous communes of the 20th century, was created during the hippie movement in the late 1960s. Located deep in Tennessee, it was the final destination for the caravan of around 60 retrofitted school buses packed with hopeful young adults. Their leader, Stephen Gaskin, was an ex-marine who gained a following at weekly lectures, where he spoke about love, religion, drugs, and the shortcomings of capitalism. The Farm, which grew to 1,500 people, sought to create a community that was self sufficient, environmentally friendly, and that used communal property and work as a way to create a simple, better life. Farm membership required total commitment, “to join, you had to sign a vow of poverty, accept charming guru Stephen Gaskin as your teacher, and turn over your cash and other possessions to the group,” (Windolf). This ensured those who chose to be part of the communal lifestyle would be tied to it. In learning about and researching this community, I wondered what led these young idealists to abandon their comfortable lives back home in exchange for hard manual labor and an uncertain future, as well as what drove them away from the lifestyle they had created years later. Through exploring various first hand accounts, members’ reflections, and even some commune theory, I was able to answer my question.

There were many contributing factors that lead to the creation of the Farm, but through reviewing founders’ opinions, most agreed on two staples: the large group of young, ambitious people who had given up on traditional capitalist ideals, and a leader to rally and focus them. In order to learn effectively why people were so passionate, I continued to look for individual stories. I learned many people had lost faith in western society, exacerbated by the War in Vietnam, and sought to create something better. As Matthew McClure, a former member, states, “we’d had some kind of spiritual realization that we were all One and that peace and love were the obvious untried answers to the problems facing our society; many of us had given up our material possessions before we even met Stephen. That’s the kind of people who started the Farm experiment,” (Kelly). These people wanted to set an example for the world in how to live. Though some had already given up normal life, much to my surprise I noticed a pattern across multiple sources of highly skilled professionals leaving their careers for this agrarian life. There are many examples of this: “Kerri Gavin was 4 when her mother, a computer operator for Dow Jones, and her father, an English professor, gave up everything they had in New Jersey to move to The Farm,” (Hamberg), “die-hard Farm resident Frank Michael, a white-bearded physicist who once worked in the aeronautics industry, arrived at the Farm in 1975 with his mathematician wife and their two sons,” (Windolf). These two families are only a sampling of the greater population that also renounced the “rat race” for something alternative. While some seemed destined for the Farm, others must have been pushed to it by society. Gaskin’s influence was the other key factor in bringing the community together. Members looked up to him like they did a prophet. “He was making sense of all the scary stuff that was happenning,” (American) says Jan Mundo. His interpersonal skills kept the society together, but his all-knowing guru governing style also contributed to the decline of the community.

The Farm, while widely regarded as one of the most successful communes, has shrunk greatly from its peak days. How could the same people who suffered so much for their dream abandon the society they built years later? In order to answer this question on a level specific to the Farm, I looked for exhibit sources where members who left gave their personal reasons for abandonment, as these could answer my question most directly. As expected, I found a combination of rationales, though it can be generalized that community members either found the lifestyle too rough, or disagreed with the way the community operated on a fundamental level. When asked about why she left, Leela Pratt said, “We were so poor we had nothing to eat at times but corn meal, buckwheat flour and black-eyed peas. I didn’t want to be dirt poor and living in Tennessee any longer,” (Hamberg). She, like many others, were worn down by the harsh conditions that come with living sole off the land. However, it wasn’t just exiting founding members who contributed to the decline, it was the next generation of Farmers who decided their parents’ lifestyle wasn’t for them. I searched for accounts written by people who were born on, but moved away from the community, in order to analyze their reason for going. Genevieve Perkins was one such member, she commented, “I hated my parents, and I hated the whole hippie thing. I think I felt a lot of shame around it too,” (American). Even Stephen’s daughter, Eva Gaskin, sarcastically recalls how suffocating the place could be, “I found a gum wrapper on the ground and I smelled it for a week until the smell went away…because that’s how wanting I was…of anything besides soybeans and tortillas” (American).

Many Farmers admitted to becoming tired of Gaskin’s absolute leadership style, claiming that he wouldn’t listen to people’s feedback. Former member John Seward said, “The worst thing about the Farm was that people learned from experiments, but then the change was not allowed to happen. If there started to be a growing feeling that…maybe we should do this or that, then the people that started feeling that would get squeezed out of the Farm and forced to leave, rather than have that create a change in the Farm,” (Kelly). This lead to many members feeling like the Farm wasn’t the progressive place they had envisioned, so naturally they too left.

Through my research question, I was able to target certain types of sources in order to get the most relevant information. By compiling many interviews with people who l founded, and people who decided to leave the Farm, I could identify major trends and effectively see what caused the sharp rise and steady decline of the supposed utopia.

Works Cited

American Commune. Directed by Rena Mundo Corshere. United States: Gravitas Ventures, 2013. Film.

Hamburg, Laura. “Old Farm Hands.” SFGate. August 6, 2000. Accessed November 21, 2015.

Kelly, Kevin. “Why We Left the Farm.” Whole Earth Review Winter 1985: 56-66. Print.

Langer, Emily. “Stephen F. Gaskin, Founder of the Farm Commune in Tennessee, Dies at 79.” The Washington Post, July 3, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2015.

Thies, Clifford F.. 2000. “The Success of American Communes”. Southern Economic Journal 67 (1). Southern Economic Association: 186–99. doi:10.2307/1061620.

Windolf, Jim. “Sex, Drugs, and Soybeans.Vanity Fair, April 30, 2007.

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