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Is The Farm an Ecovillage?

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I walked by large empty fields like this every morning.
In July 2008, when I was at The Farm in Tennessee, I’d take walks in the early mornings past large, empty fields. A few elderly horses gathered under an oak tree, their tails swishing lazily. Thirty-five years ago these were abundant fields of wheat, soybeans, and vegetables, tended under the hot sun by a hundred determined, sweaty young Farm members.

The Farm, founded in 1971, is a 1750-acre intentional community, now with 175 members. I was there to teach at the Ecovillage Training Center, a nonprofit organization founded by GEN co-founder and Farm member Albert Bates, offering programs on permaculture, natural building, and other sustainable technologies.

I was at The Farm to teach at the Ecovillage Training Center.
On my morning walks I’d see clusters of two or three homes nestled in the woods. In his 2006 book, Ecovillages, GEN president and GEN-Europe co-director Jonathan Dawson refers to The Farm as an ecovillage. But these houses sure didn't say “ecovillage” to me. They're constructed of conventional building materials, and only a few are heated by passive solar. Most get power from the local power company; few are off the grid. And while it rains a lot here, where were their water-catchment tanks? Worse, the housing clusters are separated from each other by long distances.

Economic Sustainability – Check!

But maybe The Farm is an ecovillage. Few ecovillages have got economic sustainability and “multiple centers of initiative” down like The Farm. (See Robert Gilman on “Multiple Centers of Initiative”.) They have their own health food store on site, The Farm Store, and their own onsite health-care clinic and small pharmacy. One member is a nurse practitioner; another is a physician’s assistant; both provide community members onsite care and a rapid response to any emergency. The Farm School offers alternative education to both resident and neighboring students, from kindergarten through grade 12. The Farm even has its own municipal water system, storing well water in a 25,000-gallon tower which is gravity-fed to 90-plus households and organizations. About 15 Farm members participate in the Second Foundation, an income-sharing, resource-rich mutual-benefit association.

Members and visitors can buy food and sundries at The Farm Store.
About 100 of their 150 adult members earn a living right on the property, working in businesses owned by individual members or by The Farm itself, or in member-originated or community-originated nonprofits to help The Farm fulfill its mission to help others. From making solar technologies to cultivating mushroom spawn to teaching midwifery, the Farm's 20+ onsite businesses and nonprofits seem like ideal ecovillage-based income streams to me. (See "Businesses and Nonprofits at The Farm," below.)

Ecological Sustainability?

But the distances between people’s homes, and between their homes and businesses, bothered me. “Our greatest Achilles Heel is the wide distances between buildings, whether residential or public, which make our human footprint deeper into our land-use pattern than it should be,” Albert notes in his course handout: Why the Farm is an Ecovillage — Why the Farm is Not an Ecovillage. “This pattern also brings about greater reliance on Detroit’s big steel vehicles, asphalt paving to mitigate the dust, and reliance on Mideastern Oil and all that implies. We boast ‘Think Green’ bumper stickers on 1500-lb. station wagons with only one occupant inside.”

Yet Global Village Institute, the nonprofit Albert started (see below), hosts the Farm Biofuel Cooperative, which is gradually converting Farm cars to run on vege-diesel, ethanol, solar, and/or hydrogen, with fuels produced at The Farm. GVI has converted about a dozen cars in the past two years.

I also looked askance at their power usage. Yet while Farm members do buy from a local power co-op based on nuclear power and Appalachian coal, most pay a little more for power generated by local wind farms.

And I didn’t much like the conventional building materials. Yet The Farm has a far higher recycled content to its buildings than virtually anywhere Albert has ever been — which says a lot, considering that as a GEN cofounder he’s visited scores of ecovillages worldwide.

In the ’70s when The Farm had little money for housing, one option was moving old houses onsite.
In the communal economy of the 1970s The Farm was rich in spirit but its members were quite poor, as the per capita income was about $350-400 a year for the first 13 years. “Mostly that was spent on land payments, doctor bills, the laundromat, gas for the vehicles that took people to work and carried produce, and building roads, water systems and public buildings like barns, the canning facilities, the soy dairy, and the print shop,” Albert recalls. “And with hundreds of new residents each year, most penniless, housing was a triage affair. Construction of whatever space could be dried in before winter was more of a priority than slow and contemplative building. Given no large pool of building material, and no money (and with land owned in trust, no mortgages or constructions loans were available), the need to salvage was absolute and drove all design considerations. What was available at the dump or in dumpsters at commercial building sites was what we built with, not what we might otherwise have preferred.”

“To build a house then,” Albert continued, “most likely you’d get in line for a $15 army tent from the next State auction, use an axe to make posts for it and haul stone for foundations, and stand in the Farm queue for PVC pipe in order not to haul water every day. You'd salvage some sheetrock, carpet, tin, block, brick, doors, or windows by hitching onto a dump run or go dumpster diving. You’d go to the motor pool and weld a woodstove from scrap pieces, stand in another Farm queue for stovepipe and screws, and continue salvaging, perhaps by joining a wrecking crew and taking home a share of the materials. And you'd spend a lot of time on hand-crafting things that people normally buy from stores.”

Douglas Stevenson, long-time Farm member and Farm Manager, estimates that about 80 percent of the homes are built from recycled lumber gathered in the ’70s. “One of my first jobs was co-foreman of a demolition crew which brought back salvaged building materials to be used in the construction of most homes and early structures," he says. "All the brick on the gate house, the Community Center, and the Farm School came from a factory we tore down. Steel ceiling supports in the Community Center are also recycled. Some buildings — the health care clinic, the Welcome Center, and one home are recycled buildings we brought here on the back of a semi trailer.”

The Farm hauled used grain bins onsite as well.
Another factor affecting homes at The Farm is the community’s emphasis on individual freedom and conscience rather than on community agreements. While they no longer allow formaldehyde-laden mobile homes, to have agreements that don’t allow such products or limit square footage of homes or power usage “would be the more serious offense,” Albert says, “given our values.”

But even really poor 1970s hippies using recycled materials could still use south-facing windows for passive solar heating, right? Indeed, from 1972 until 1978 all homes constructed at the Farm were passive solar. “What we learned from that was that passive solar is inapplicable in Tennessee, where we get eight months of summer,” Albert said. “Cooling, not heating, is the real concern. After 1978, people stopped orienting new buildings and glazing to capture sunlight in winter and started placing them to maximize shade and slope, often burying houses partially underground. Heating is simply less of a concern than it was before we had actual experience with the climate here.”

And they do use woodstoves, thick insulation, and natural ventilation designs to help reduce their energy footprint.

While central Tennessee gets 30 to 50 inches of rain a year, Farm residents don't often catch and store water through roofwater catchment or other means for the dry summer months. Instead they use electricity to pump water to their homes to wash clothes and water gardens in the summer. Whoops.

Farm members grew grains, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables, in the ’70s.
Yet, as Albert writes in his handout, “we maximize water conservation, including greywater and blackwater systems that digest wastes anaerobically and return water and nutrients to our forests." Terraces and swales prevent topsoil loss. The Farm supplies all of its own potable water from wells, distributed through the municipal water system. (The state of Tennessee requires them to chlorinate their water — yuck! — but Farm members remove chlorine with under-sink water filters.)

Currently Albert is advocating that The Farm convert at least 15 percent of the property to ponds and water features to combat the conditions of severe and chronic drought which climate-change experts are predicting. Besides water and food scarcity, the consequences of drought could include fires, and most Farm houses are wooden and nestled in trees. Ponds could also produce beneficial algae, he notes, and provide additional water for irrigation, and would cause no mosquito problem if stocked with mosquito-larvae-killing fish and plants.

Empty Fields? Grow More Food. Please!

In the early days, Farm agriculture involved manual labor.
But what interests me most about The Farm is food, and their empty fields. The community encourages getting locally grown, organic food from home gardens, local CSA farms and a regional food co-op, and harvesting from onsite apple and pear orchards and a blueberry field planted in the 1970s.

Because clearing a field and amending the soil at Earthaven Ecovillage, in the forested mountains of North Carolina, where I live, can cost between $5,000 and $9,000 an acre, I’ve got a bad case of “cleared-field envy” (Freud didn’t cover this one). I can't bear it that the good folks at The Farm aren’t already growing or raising more of their own food on their — to me — precious already-cleared 50 to 60 acres of fields!

Albert is an internationally recognized expert in Climate Change and Peak Oil. He’s author of the award-winning Climate in Crisis (1990) and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide (2006), and a sought-after speaker at Peak Oil conferences. Because of this he understands that Farm residents must, like all of us, grow much more of their own food in the coming hard times. So he now attends several community meetings a week, including land-use, biofuel cooperative, and CSA farming meetings, to talk with Farm residents about growing food in their fields again.

Nowadays many Farm members grow vegetables in home gardens.
Not every Farm resident believes there is a need to grow more food in a large-scale way like this. Albert and his colleagues meet with fellow Farm residents, bring up peak oil and climate change issues again and again, describe how oil and climate relates to food availability and food prices, and continue to advocate that The Farm become a farm again. “It’s a community self-education process,” he says.

In the process of attempting to persuade people, the advocates of growing food in fields are dealing with a series of what Albert sees as Farm “myths” about using the fields again. One myth, in his view, is the idea raised by the earliest residents that maybe they could use horse-farming and human labor like they did their first 10 years on the land. But that turned out to be more romantic than effective, and by the third year they turned to rusty old recycled tractors and salvaged combines instead.

Some Farm members have suggested that they could grow food like they did in the 1970s, with a hundred young people working in the fields, growing such an abundance that they delivered food in large semi tractor-trailer trucks to satellite Farm communities all over the country. But in those days they had up to 1400 residents, with dozens more arriving daily and willing to do hard labor. Now, 25 years later, most of their 150 adult members are in their 50s and 60s, and there just isn't enough labor or energy for hand-labor-based farming.

Albert hopes to convince Farm members to grow food in their fields again, as well as in home gardens.
A third view is that they could grow food with huge tractors and combines, as they did so successfully in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Some longtime Farm members recall that owning and operating gigantic heavy equipment was really fun! But, as Albert and other Peak Oil/Climate Change advocates at The Farm point out, using fossil fuel-based farming methods as used in agri-biz is increasingly uneconomical, especially now.

Another suggestion is that they could do the permaculture-based “forest gardening” method. Albert and other permaculturists point out that while forest gardening integrates fruit and nut trees into a food-growing operation and utilizes the principles of mutually beneficial plant relationships in a forest ecosystem, to literally grow food in their existing forests, even with inter-planted food species, would not yield as much food per acre as planting crops in sunny fields.

And lastly there's the belief is that The Farm would need to be entirely food self-reliant, growing everything onsite. This would not only be difficult but isn’t necessary, Albert and other food-growing advocates point out, since Amish and Mennonite farmers in the area are already growing an abundance of food right on their doorstep. What makes sense, say the advocates of cultivating their fields again, is to create a network of local food interdependence, and not only grow many of their own vegetables, but also grow specialty products, such as potatoes, or vege-diesel fuel from algae, which they can trade for other food products from their Anabaptist neighbors. To not try to grow everything, but to be part of a regional food-growing network. To continue to get products that grow in or are produced in other regions, such as olive oil and salt, from a regional food-buying co-op.

Douglas Stevenson expresses another view on food. So many Farm members have home gardens that meet their needs for vegetables, fruits, and carbohydrates (winter squash and sweet potatoes), he says, that it may be difficult for a CSA farmer to establish a base of subscribers to generate a sufficient income. For example, he and his wife grow most of their own fruits and vegetables: canning, freezing, or dehydrating tomatoes, basil, parsley, peppers, squash, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries and harvest blueberries, pears, apples from the community’s orchards. They’ve submitted a proposal to the Land Use committee to use a portion of a nearby field to expand their home garden, and are encouraging other Farm families to do the same.

Douglas also points out that the soil in the fields is poor quality and wouldn't provide the yield in bushels per acre to make it cost-effective. Poor soil doesn't seem like a strong enough reason to not use cleared fields to me, probably because Earthaven's farmers add soil amendments, green manure, and compost teas to our own poor-quality soil. However, Douglas points out the differences between small-scale food-growing enterprises like ours and growing field crops like wheat, soybeans, and other grains and legumes. "These require tractors, combines, facilities for drying the harvest to the proper moisture content for storage, and then climate- and moisture-controlled storage facilities," he says. "It would only take a small percentage of our fields to supply all our vegetable needs. While we could in theory grow field crops, the yield would not justify the investment in labor or fuel."

I hope The Farm will grow more food in the near future — and we all will.
So, is The Farm an ecovillage? Now that I see beyond surface appearances, I believe it is. And, as Albert points out, even if the Farm were burning coal to heat and light the place, or building with cement, steel, and plastic — which of course it’s not — the fact that The Farm, its Swan Conservation Trust (see below), and its associated network own and protect 4,000 acres of mixed woodland in Tennessee’s Highland Rim and is gearing up to save a lot more, would justify its being in the ecovillage category.

But whether it is or isn’t (and does it matter?), I ardently hope The Farm decides to go for the proposals to grow crops in fields again and to expand home gardens. I hope that when you or I next visit this renowned community we’ll see healthy fields of grains, soybeans, potatoes, and vegetables — and many large home gardens — with content and well-fed Farm members happily trading their surplus grains, beans, and other foods with their content and well-fed neighbors.

And may this be true for us all.

Businesses and Nonprofits at The Farm

SE International: radiation detection equipment sold to markets worldwide; SolarSmith: solar hot water heaters and solar cookers; Mushroompeople: mushroom spawn, tools, educational materials; Village Media: videos, web pages, print media and other promotional methods; The Farm Soy Dairy: soy-based food products; Tempeh Lab: tempeh starter kits; The Book Publishing Company: books on vegetarian, vegan, and soyfoods cooking, and Native American history and culture; The Mail Order Catalog: cookbooks and vegetarian food products; The Farm Midwifery Workshops: classes and retreats for practicing midwives, beginning midwifery students, and labor and delivery nurses; You’re Inn at The Farm: ecohostel affiliated with the Ecovillage Training Center; The Farm Education/Conference Center: host for retreats and conferences for outside groups. Individually owned businesses include a full-service construction business, a home restoration and painting company, and an excavation service.

The Farm Midwifery Center: home and hospital birthing services; Plenty International: an NGO working with indigenous and impoverished people in the U.S and 15 countries worldwide on small-scale agriculture, nutrition, primary health care, clean water, and alternative energy; Kids To the Country: Plenty project bringing at-risk urban kids to the Farm to enjoy nature and study peace education; The Swan Conservation Trust: protecting fragile ecosystems in Tennessee's Western Highland Rim; PeaceRoots Alliance: national peace and justice activism (countering military recruitment in schools, assisting Iraq veterans, national anti-war billboard campaigns); Rocinante: encouraging qualified elders to build and live in cabins (available to other elders after they die) on Rocinante's 100-acre property adjacent to The Farm.

The Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (GVI), which Albert co-founded, researches promising new environmentally friendly technologies, including renewable energy, environmental building, sustainable agriculture, biological wastewater systems, community conflict resolution methodologies, holistic community planning, permaculture design, experiential education, natural capital economics.

Related articles:

Robert Gilman on “Multiple Centers of Initiative” - In this issue
The Ecovillage Movement Today – May 2008 issue

Also in this issue — Oct. '08
Coming in Future Issues:
  • Anastasia Ecovillages in Russia (Andrew Jones)
  • Konohana Family Farm in Japan (Hildur Jackson)
  • First Philippines Ecovillage Design Education Course (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Pintig Ecovillage Partners with a Local Green Business (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part II (Russell Austerberry)
  • Svanholm in Denmark Becomes Carbon Neutral (Christina Adler Jensen)
  • Ecovillage Conference Tokyo 2009 (Hildur Jackson)
  • ‘Glue’ or ‘Shrapnel’ in Your Ecovillage (Diana Leafe Christian)
Personal tools

Newsletter Staff

Mission & Purpose

To encourage and inspire new and existing ecovillage projects with news about ecovillages and related projects worldwide.

Advisory Board

  • Lois Arkin,
    CRSP; ENA; Urban Ecovillage Network; Los Angeles Eco-Village, US
  • Peter Bane,
    Permaculture designer; publisher, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Albert Bates,
    Co-founder, GEN; Post-Petroleum Survival Guide; Director, Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, US
  • Tree Bressen,
    Consensus & Facilitation Trainer; Cofounder, Walnut St. Co-op, US
  • Ernest Callenbach,
    Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging; US
  • Giovanni Ciarlo,
    GEN; ENA; Huehyecoyotl Ecovillage, Mexico
  • Raines Cohen,
    Cohousing Association of the US; Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC); Berkeley Cohousing, US
  • Leila Dregger,
    Peace journalist & writer, Peace Research Center & Ecovillage, Tamera, Portugal
  • Chuck Durrett,
    Cohousing; Senior Cohousing; Architect, The Cohousing Company; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Jonathan Dawson,
    Ecovillages; Findhorn Foundation, Scotland
  • Robert Gilman,
    Co-founder, GEN; Ecovillages & Sustainable Communities; City Council Member, Langley, Washington, US
  • Michael Hale,
    Yarrow Ecovillage, Canada
  • Jeff Grossberg,
    Guidestone Consulting Group, US
  • Martha Harris,
    Earthaven Ecovillage, US
  • Scott Horton,
    Editor, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Hildur Jackson,
    Co-founder, Gaia Trust; cofounder, GEN; Ecovillage Living, Denmark
  • Kosha Joubert,
    Editor, Beyond You and Me, GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage Sieben Linden, Germany
  • Elana Kann & Bill Flemming,
    Co-developers, Westwood Cohousing, US
  • Joseph F. Kennedy,
    Designer/educator; The Art of Natural Building, US
  • Fred & Nancy Lanphear,
    Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA); Songaia Cohousing, US
  • Mark Lakeman,
    Founder, Portland City Repair & Village Building Convergence, US
  • Max Lindegger,
    Cofounder, GEN; Director, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Crystal Waters Ecovillage, Australia
  • Chris Mare,
    GEN's EDE Program; Village Design Institute, US
  • Ronaye Matthew,
    Canadian Cohousing Network; Cranberry Commons Cohousing, Canada
  • Kathryn McCamant,
    Architect/Developer, Cohousing Partners, Inc.; Co-author, Cohousing; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Dr. Bill Metcalf,
    Findhorn Book of Community Living; Professor, Environmental Sociology, Griffith University, Australia
  • Ina Meyer-Stoll,
    Co-director, GEN-Europe; ZEGG, Germany
  • Tim Miller,
    The 60s Communes; Professor of Religion, University of Kansas, US
  • Hank Obermayer,
    Mariposa Grove Cohousing, US
  • Toshio Ogata,
    Professor of Economics, Chuo University; GEPA (Global Environment Project in Asia), Japan
  • Craig Ragland,
    Executive Director, Cohousing Association of the US; Songaia Cohousing; New Earth Song Cohousing, US
  • Penelope Reyes,
    President, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Tuwâ - The Laughing Fish, Cabiao, Philippines
  • Michael Rios,
    Network for a New Culture Summer Camp East; Chrysalis, Washington DC, US
  • Jim Shenck,
    Enright Ridge Ecovillage, US
  • Nicola Shirley,
    The Source Farm Ecovillage, Jamaica
  • Tony Sirna,
    Communities Directory; Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, US
  • Jan Steinman,
    EcoReality Co-op, Canada
  • Liz Walker,
    GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage at Ithaca; EcoVillage at Ithaca, US