The Farm: A Leader of Modern Hippiedom

Since I went to college in Austin, Texas and embraced my more “alternative” side, my father likes to refer to me as a hippie, informing me of how much I would’ve fit in during the 60s and 70s. I typically roll my eyes at the premise that not eating meat and caring about the environment makes me a hippie, but when we made plans to visit The Farm, a hippie commune turned co-op, in the unexpected location of Summertown, Tennessee, I was curious as to whether I’d be struck with a sense of finding my people.

At its peak, The Farm was internationally known for its scale along with being a leader in modern midwifery, which is how it gained the attention of my sister who was pregnant at the time of our visit. What had began as a community guided by a spiritual leader in 1971 transformed into a co-op in 1983 when financial troubles made its previous existence unsustainable.

My family’s interest in the farm began with Spiritual Midwifery, a renowned book offering insight on natural birth that featured stories of women giving birth on the farm at a time when non-hospital births were rare and stigmatized — come to think of it, not much has changed in society’s perception since then. Which brings me to Meredith and Mike*, the couple whose house we stayed in during our time there whose birthing story is featured in the book and who were part of the original group that traveled from California to Tennessee in search a place to turn their spiritual dream into a reality.

Before arriving, I’d developed ideas of what the farm would be like, anticipating a place frozen in time with an abundance of hair and incense, bare bones technology, and a perpetual drum circle. What I found instead was a quiet, low-key community that had very much progressed with the times.

Upon meeting Meredith and Mike, it became clear that much had changed over the decades. What was once a community of houses of 30 to 40 people had been downgraded to a house of two with three extra bedrooms. Their sustainable eating habits had transitioned from growing their own crops to buying alternative health food items from places like Trader Joe’s. “We didn’t have options like this when we were younger,” Meredith explained. Although there’s no meat in the house and Meredith remains a strict vegetarian, Mike slyly informs us that he’s an opportunistic meat eater, especially bacon.

Later that evening, we attended a communal potluck that offered various vegetarian fare and even a meat item or two along with beer and wine, the likes of which were prohibited before the changeover in 1983. Once residents became paying members, the rigid ideology of poverty and clean living could no longer be enforced, and so lifestyles became more varied.

One aspect of The Farm that seemed unaffected by this 1983 shift was its emphasis on children, who played with a sense of unadulterated freedom reminiscent of what I imagine the first kids of The Farm experienced. Through them, I got a taste of the spirit that once dominated this space, one of openness untainted by the typical pressures of society.

After dinner came a live performance by a trio: a young man on banjo, young woman on violin, and middle-aged man on guitar playing something similar to bluegrass that they charmingly referred to as “old time music.” During this performance, parents did little to control or quiet their kids so the quaint tunes intermixed with the sound of children playing, laughing, arguing as couples danced. In this moment, I once again got a sense of the magic I’d been looking for — a communal appreciation of simple pleasures.

As our time at the farm passed, my impression of it continued to waver between romantic fulfillment and pragmatic disappointment. Although much of its original ideals had been compromised or all but forgotten over the years, such as growing their own food, it wasn’t without its charm. Talking with Meredith and Mike, their story reflected many of the older generation’s experience: leaving after the changeover, getting a job in the city and living a more typical American existence, moving back to The Farm after retirement to live out their old age on the land founded by their youthful ideals.

Much has changed since then but some things have remained consistent — Meredith, a woman of humble strength and wisdom, who served on the “council of elders” during the farm’s early days, returned to a position of influence as a member of The Farm’s leadership committee responsible for guiding decision making.

When talking with Meredith, I would catch a sparkle in her eye as she reflected on communal living, residing in a house of 30, many of them kids, and starting each day braiding everyone’s hair. These small moments remind me that although their spiritual dream was short lived, its positive influence has had lifelong effects.

Meredith, initially hesitant to open up about her current views towards The Farm, eventually shares brief insights, such as her frustration with some of the young people on The Farm who are resistant to paying dues, believing their art to be a sufficient contribution to the community. In this moment, I question if the dream of a life without money is a privilege and product of youth. And in-turn, I reflect on the generation of hippies currently growing old, most of whom have similarly compromised and sacrificed their hippie ideology. In doing so, I question if this idealism checked by pragmatism is an inevitable cycle of life, and if so, when I’ll enter this next stage.

The Farm’s downfall as a spiritual commune was in large part due to its open door policy, which resulted in over a thousand residents, causing food shortages and sanitation issues. When my father reflects on his time as a hippie, he pinpoints the counterculture’s inevitable implosion due to its attraction of freeloaders and hedonists. It just wasn’t a sustainable existence, he explains. I guess that’s what society must ultimately be guided by, that which is sustainable.

Decades later, now that the dust has settled on the end of this utopian dream, The Farm is arguably a stronger force for good than its previous incarnation with 16 private businesses dedicated to alternative and sustainable living, 8 nonprofits, and even its own K-12 school.

So although the free loving utopia I imagined has been replaced by an active intentional community, there is still much to learn from its history and existence. Living outside the system isn’t necessarily the way to create lasting change. Instead, it’s through working within the system, using what works and ignoring what doesn’t.

And hey, there’s something to be said for the fact that one of the most liberal communities in the US is located 35 miles from the birthplace of the KKK. If that’s not an indication of the potential of social progress and influence anywhere in the US, I don’t know what is.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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