The Farm is a secluded, 1,750 acre intentional community in Tennessee that was founded in the 1960s. Created to be a totally self-sufficient and environmentally-friendly socialist haven, founder Stephen Gaskin created a following of almost 1,500 young adults ready to forgo modern amenities and create a new life in America’s rural heartland. In order to live in the community, there were many rules citizens had to abide by. These were put in place to ensure full commitment to the community, and to deter those who thought of The Farm as nothing more than free food and shelter. On The Farm, everything belonged to everyone, but personally nobody was allowed much besides their clothes. For Erika Anderson, whose parents were among those who built The Farm, but decided to move on when she was two, it became clear that these communities can take just as much as they give. In a sharing-based system such as this, spreading the wealth can take its toll both during one’s stay and upon departing.
Gaskin believed that new members had to be willing to completely immerse themselves in their new culture. This meant leaving behind the common, materialistic ways of western society. In order to ensure people would show long-term commitment to their new life, there were formal measures put in place. In order 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 forced new members to literally become invested in the group. Not only did this mean only those who weren’t serious about the alternative lifestyle wouldn’t want to join, but it kept those who were already part of the community from being able to leave, as they would have nothing to restart their lives with.
In a commune, all work is done for the benefit of the collective and not for one’s self. Any profit made by members is put into a collective account, and all community expenses are drawn from it; nobody can lay claim to ‘their individual portion,’ so personal expenses can prove challenging to fund. Both of Anderson’s parents had jobs, she says, “my dad was an experienced mason, and he brought in much needed revenue by running a masonry crew that worked off The Farm. My mom worked in the clinic, hoping to be a midwife” (Anderson). Working in this manner means that the Anderson family should be entitled to what they need on The Farm, in terms of food and other essentials, but are still essentially living on credit. This means that members don’t have a savings account, and had to place all hope of a secure future on the community, rather than having their own personal safety net. Anderson’s father justifies this when he says, “by spreading the risk and spreading the reward, all lives could be improved in innumerable ways” (Anderson). However, his logic only works if the reward is bigger than the risk. The whole community could feel the backlash of the under-productivity or mistakes of a few. If there were mismanagements of community funds, and there eventually were, those who had been doing their part all along failed to see the benefits. Former member Leela Pratt gives an example of what living on the other end of these issues is like, “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). Her anecdote shows just how at the mercy of the community each member was.
As mentioned previously, members relinquish all possessions to The Farm upon arrival, and earn no personal profit from their work while there. So, if they still do decide to leave they are incredibly disadvantaged. When it came time for the Andersons to move on (due to disagreements in how the commune was managed) the family barely had anything to their name. This would make it very hard to assimilate back into society, and would leave most Farmers in a worse position then they were in before joining. Anderson gives a personal example of how her family’s lives were affected: “even though my dad had handed over every paycheck, The Farm forwarded our medical bills” (Anderson). This is an inherent, if not intentional, flaw with the community’s system, there’s no way to cash out. This comes not only in a monetary sense, but also in the Farm-specific skills people had spent the last few years focusing on. Many workers left with little workplace knowledge, making it hard to find non-entry-level employment even though many were already supporting families. Anderson’s father might have been able to contribute enough to earn their family’s spot in the commune, but she makes it clear that her parents, like many others in their situation, struggled upon departure; “they started over at 30 with three children, 10 dollars, scant professional experience, and no college degrees,” (Anderson) she says . Today this would be a nightmare, and while they might have been slightly less disadvantaged decades ago, it would still prove a challenge to salvage a living in this situation.
Anderson’s examples are a window into what communal life was like for many on The Farm, and for those who eventually tired of it. The Andersons, like so many others, exchanged their real-world livelihoods for a simpler way of life. For some, this lifestyle worked well enough, but those who suffered on the commune and wanted to leave, faced equal if not worse consequences upon reentry to society. Anderson encompasses the whole idea when she says, “when you join a commune, everything is yours. When you leave, nothing is” (Anderson).
Anderson, Erika. “What Life Is Like When You’re Born on a Commune.” Vanity Fair. Condé Nast, 28 Aug. 2014.
Hamburg, Laura. “Old Farm Hands.” SFGate. August 6, 2000. Accessed November 21, 2015.
Windolf, Jim. “Sex, Drugs, and Soybeans.” Vanity Fair. Condé Nast, April 30, 2007.