Seven years ago I was sitting in a birthing class hosted by the doula who would help me bring my daughter into the world a few weeks later. The small class — there were just three couples — covered everything from the physical details about what exactly happens to a body giving birth to the more abstract discussions around the spiritual details that come with pushing a human out of your body.
Kimmy the doula covered it all and helped us ask ourselves some important questions: What was your birth plan? How will your partner help guide you through this experience? And the unavoidable question: What if something goes wrong?
“Depending on how serious it was,” Kimmy, “I’d probably just get in my car and drive [from Los Angeles] to The Farm in Tennessee.” She was dead serious. Like many other doulas, ours was a disciple of Ina May Gaskin, wife of late Stephen Gaskin (1935-2014), the figurehead who helmed the rural Tennessee collective better known as The Farm.
From 1971 to 1983, The Farm was a thriving community, often touted as America’s largest commune. It sprawled over more than 1,500 acres in rural Tennessee with more than a thousand members. Its founding members boarded two dozen buses out of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury in 1970. This peak time of cultural revolution had left hundreds in the Bay Area longing for a return to nature. Not able to afford to establish a community in Northern California, the group headed out of state in search of trees. They spent seven months on the road before settling in Summertown, Tennessee, when they came to a place where the “vibes” were just right.
But unlike other high profile communes that morphed into often dangerous (or murderous) cults, The Farm kept its leaders in check, focusing instead on becoming self-sufficient through its own infrastructure, organic farming, adhering to a vegan diet, and natural childbirth.
While today it’s a much smaller collective and its organizational structure has changed a bit from the early days, The Farm in Summertown is still thriving.
Here are seven ways The Farm helped shape modern culture.
1. Natural Childbirth
Ina May Gaskin revolutionized childbirth. Her firm belief that the body was made to do this peopling business all on its own helped thousands of women through The Farm (and countless more around the world) deliver babies sans drugs. Her seminal 1976 book “Spiritual Midwifery” led to a boom in doulas and midwives to help women deliver naturally at home. The value of doulas and midwives are now so commonplace most hospitals employ them to assist in the delivery room. Gaskin estimates she personally helped deliver more than 2,300 babies during The Farm’s peak years. To this day Gaskin helms the Midwifery Center at The Farm, empowering women and their childbirth experiences.
2. Organic Farming
While certified organic labels didn’t come to supermarkets properly until 2000, The Farm was way ahead of the curve, farming organically from the start. To be self-sufficient, it cultivated nearly all of its own food; the founding members converted hundreds of acres of land to fully organic and chemical-free crops. It grew plenty of vegetables and grains to feed its families, and it also cultivated crops like sorghum, which it used to create a molasses product. To this day The Farm still sells organic produce and even teaches organic gardening courses.
3. Vegan Food
If you’ve ever eaten a Thanksgiving Tofurky, you have The Farm to thank for this. Tofurky’s founder Seth Tibbott spent some time there in rural Tennessee back in the 1970s. The Farm’s diet was strictly animal-free, and at the time, the community was eating a lot of soybean cakes that Tibbott found a little less than amazing. When he heard about fermented Indonesian soy cakes called tempeh, he was intrigued. He soon started experimenting making his own at The Farm and inspiration was born. He’d’ take his enterprise to the Pacific Northwest, and years later, invent the Tofurky roast. But what sparked at The Farm would turn Tofurky into one of the leading vegan meat producers in the world.
4. Off-the-Grid Living
While today it’s not uncommon to see people switching to solar power or growing their own food, it was largely a novel concept in the 1970s. But in order to sustain itself fully, The Farm adopted a number of these practices in addition to organic farming. It was an early adopter of solar power, proving that it could be done at scale. By the 1990s, it had established itself as one of the premier educational programs around solar power. And it’s still going — from the community’s homes to its school and shops, The Farm is solar-powered. It also established a number of other services including its own water towers and water systems, an electrical company, a construction company, and a tofu plant. Its EcoVillage Training Center offers conferences, seminars, and a number of curriculums on sustainable off-the-grid living.
Coronavirus lockdown certainly changed how we all view homeschooling, but the trend existed long before quarantine. And The Farm has been one of the movement’s leaders. While its school started out as a one-room classroom back in the 1970s, it’s since evolved to include a full K-12 program and a complete homeschooling platform available to students of all ages. The school aims to nurture its students and help empower them toward being more compassionate people and creating a more sustainable world.
6. Mission-Led Business
The Farm’s many arms included Plenty, a charitable component it developed in 1974 to help disaster victims around the world. The group spent four years in Guatemala after the 1976 earthquake where it rebuilt more than 1,200 homes and built more than 16 miles of water pipes. In 1980, the organization was also the first to receive the Right Livelihood Award considered an alternative to the Nobel Prize.
7. Cooperation Works
While The Farm saw its share of failures and drama over the years that ultimately led to its reconstruction (“The Changeover”), it did prove for thousands of its residents and followers over the years that a small or not-so-small group of people can indeed do great things together. The Farm owes its success not so much to Gaskin’s leadership or vision, but to the community itself, a group of people committed to working together to live as harmoniously as possible while making the planet a better place.