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                    gaskin farm, intentional community, hippie gardeners, a commune, cheap cheap rent!

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In 1970, pot-smoking guru Stephen Gaskin, a former U.S. Marine, led his band of acolytes on a mystic trip out of San Francisco and into the American heartland. But a funny thing happened on the way to enlightenment: Gaskin's hippies learned the ancient virtues of hard work, good hygiene, and crop rotation. Deep in the Tennessee woods, they formed a spiritual commune called The Farm, which has morphed over its 36 years into a high-tech eco–think tank.

by Jim Windolf Vanity Fair April 5, 2007

The cultural cliché has it that the flower children danced at Woodstock, crashed at Altamont, and gradually shed their naïve ideals as they made themselves into ice-cream moguls, media magnates, and triangulating politicians. But the 200 people who live at the Farm—a 1,750-acre spread in the heart of Tennessee—have managed to hang on to the hippie spirit. It isn't like they sit around talking about peace and love all the time, and hugging one another, and meditating, and eating tofu, and drinking soy coffee, and smoking weed, and criticizing the government, and making hopelessly earnest remarks—well, actually, it is like that, come to think of it. Farm residents do all that stuff, as I learned only too well during my four-day visit, this past January. But the Farm isn't where you go to dream your life away in a 1960s-besotted haze. The place is active, fully engaged with the world. And it has a strong backbone in the form of 10 nonprofit companies and 20 private businesses.

Unlike the rest of us slobs, who sleepwalk through the workweek only to collapse at Friday's finish line, the people at the Farm haven't given up on the half-forgotten, laughable-seeming notion of making the world a better place. They have energy and enthusiasm. They take long hikes, they chop wood, and they actually bother to take part in marches against the war. They build their own photovoltaic solar panels, they grow tomatoes in backyard gardens, and they try not to be grouchy with one another. After dinner, when it's time to wash the pots and pans, they don't make a huge deal out of it by running the water full blast while listening to loud music, the way I do at home. For Farmies (as they sometimes call themselves), doing the dishes can be a meditative act involving a few inches of hot water at the bottom of the sink basin and some light splashing with a squirt or two of a non-petroleum-derived soap. They're making a constant and conscious effort, in other words, to live without harming other people, animals, or the planet. So it's not just some goofy lifestyle thing.

The Farm started out, in 1971, as a religious commune, a back-to-the-land refuge. Because of the original residents' tie-dyed clothes and old-time agrarianism, the press called them "the Technicolor Amish." "We were a special kind of hippie that worked," says founding member Ina May Gaskin, "and so the TV cameras loved that." 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.

The long-haired Farmies adhered to vegan diets and worked the land. For protein, they ate soybeans in countless permutations. For enlightenment, they smoked pot, which they considered a holy sacrament. Nobody carried any money. You just picked up your household rations at the Farm Store. If you needed pocket cash for an errand to nearby Summertown or Hohenwald, you applied for it and got some from the bank ladies. If you needed a vehicle for some group-approved purpose, you went to the Motor Pool and signed it out.

Sundays at sunrise Gaskin stood in the meadow before his congregation and tossed out the names Buddha and Jesus in eclectic sermons. In little more than a decade the population grew from roughly 300 to 1,500. Half were children, who ran free through the woods and fields. But little by little the grind of tofu and poverty wore down the majority. They held a vote in 1983—and the communal way of life lost out. Farming on a grand scale came to an end. An exodus sent the population down to roughly 200, where it has remained.

"We had a charismatic leader, Stephen, who laid down some of the founding principles, but we weren't a democratic society," says longtime resident Alan Graf, who left the Farm after the changeover, only to move back last year. "Most of the authority went through him. Now he's become a citizen, like everybody else. It's changed, and Stephen's cool with it."

The Farm has morphed into something like a hands-on environmental think tank. Its self-reliant residents are comfortable with the long-lost country skills of natural home building and midwifery, but they're also adept at the newer arts of biodiesel mechanics and nuclear-radiation detection. Of the roughly 200 full-time residents, approximately 125 are members who typically pay between $85 and $110 in monthly dues. The Farm's main population belongs to the hippie generation, baby-boomers now in their late 50s and early 60s, but in the last few years younger folks have been coming aboard. Now, roughly 40 of the adult members are under 40 years old, with 10 other young adults going through the membership process (and 20 more seemingly close to making the leap). It looks like this community will continue thriving long after its founders have joined old friends and loved ones in the Farm's own graveyard.

As greenhouse gases thicken overhead, many Farm residents say the way the rest of us live now—in an oil-dependent culture of cars, cubicles, and highway-side subdivisions—is not only soul deadening, but doomed. The future of the industrialized world, they say, may end up looking like the distant past: a landscape of self-sufficient communities not unlike the Farm itself. Either that or we'll be living in a Mad Max movie, with roving gangs of alpha males keeping the rest of us in line.

I was never much of a hippie-phile. The Grateful Dead annoyed me. In high school, my heroes were Joe Strummer and Steve Martin. When I watched Family Ties, I sided with Michael J. Fox against his parents. But I was curious that a place like the Farm had managed to survive.

So here I am, hailing a cab on Broadway at four in the morning. The driver is awake enough to get me to La Guardia, and I am on a Nashville runway at a little after seven a.m. Fearing that there will be nothing but greaseless vegan fare at the Farm, I hit the city in search of eggs, bacon, and a side of buttered grits, and find them at a little cafeteria downtown, where my fellow diners look like refugees from Jerry Springer. Fully loaded, I point my rented car south and drive for about 60 miles. I exit off the highway—brick churches, farmland, hawks overhead. The driveways I pass are filled with squat all-terrain vehicles and pickup trucks.

The Farm has a funny location, lying close to a series of scattered Amish settlements and about 35 miles from the Ku Klux Klan's birthplace. A brick gatehouse separates it from the outer world. I drive by expansive fields once crowded with horses and hippies. In the near distance blackjack oak, poplar, and pine fill the hillside woods. Down the hill is the swimming hole, where the Farm's 25 kids cool off in the summer. It's also where Farm alumni gather, each July, for a reunion festival.

There are roughly 75 structures in all; 20 for businesses, the rest private residences. Some of the houses would fit in on any suburban street; others are old trailers with funky additions, or overgrown, split-level shacks with tin roofs. The homes used to be overloaded—50 people crammed into a given house—but now each is for one family. (CONTINUED AT URL BELOW)