Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Changeover

When I first visited the Farm in 2007 and then again just a few days ago, I saw a slide presentation by long-time Farm resident Doug Stevenson. The presentation detailed the early gathering of students in the Bay Area in California around the charismatic teaching of Stephen Gaskin, the cross-country bus caravan, the establishment of the Farm in rural Tennessee, and the humanitarian projects that the Farm community undertook in the 1970s. Very close to the end of the presentation comes the description of the Changeover; the time when the Farm re-organized itself economically in order to arrest their slide into debt and head off possible loss of the land to foreclosure. Before the Changeover, the Farm was making six thousands dollars a week and spending ten thousand, and, according to this narrative, it was a simple economic calculation that mandated the transition.

As I say, most of the presentation of the Farm's history focuses on the period between the founding in 1971 and the Changeover in 1983. The next 27 years, over two-thirds of the Farm's existence, gets summed up as a sort of dénouement, but given that the Farm population plummeted from somewhere in the neighborhood of thirteen hundred to less than two hundred in a handful of years after the Changeover, most of the hours of human experience on the Farm did, in fact, take place before the Changeover.

I've been helping Frank Michael, the proprietor of MushroomPeople, a mail order business here on the Farm, pack and ship orders for Shiitake mushroom spawn and cultivation tools and materials during the Spring busy period. What follows is a partial transcript of a conversation that I recorded with Frank yesterday as we packed up orders. The recording is unsuitable for use as a podcast because of the crackling of newspaper and plastic bags and the noise of a tape gun.

The Changeover had been presented to me as an economic response to an economic reality, and I was unsatisfied during much of the following conversation that Frank would not address it in those terms. In my thinking, the depopulation of the Farm came after the economic re-organization of the Changeover, and therefore it must have resulted from the Changeover. (Yes, I'm aware of the post hoc fallacy.) What slowly sunk in over the course of our conversation, and during the time spent transcribing and reflecting on it, is that the Changeover and the depopulation both resulted from dynamics of life on the old Farm that don't get much play in the official presentation of the history of the Farm.

Frank: The people on the work crews were more comfortable talking to each other than to anybody else, so there wound up being a certain amount of cliquishness happening. All very naturally and very understandably. And social position... I don't know if I would call it exactly social position, but there were some people who were much more active and more voluble. Back on the old Farm the real value system was that whoever had better oral skills wound up being the one who got heard more and got to determine what happened more.

We were right on the cusp of survivability because, for one thing, we took a vow of poverty when we arrived here, and so that made things a little flaky. We were always making decisions like, “Oh my God, shall we get penicillin for the clinic or toilet paper this week?”

Those were the kinds of decisions that would come up typically. We would typically burn out a bank person... We used to call them bank ladies – we also had some guys too to do the banking, try to keep up with the finances and pay the bills. We used to burn these people out at the rate of once every six weeks or so. I've seen 200 pound, big, yang guys crying because he couldn't make the budget that week, and, you know, there was no way to make a decision about what to do with what little money was coming in.

So those were some of the pressures that caused the Changeover actually, and there was surprisingly little rancor because some people really sacrificed a lot. They would get up at four in the morning, and get in a truck or bus, drive all the way to Nashville and work some shit job, and come back after hours. And they would do this year after year after year to support the rest of us, and the rest of us were not idle. I mean, we used to work long hours. Sixteen-hour, eighteen-hour days were not uncommon.


Frank: I would say off-hand that one of the major categories [of people who left the Farm after the Changeover] is people who disagreed philosophically with Stephen. It took me years to understand some of the dynamics of what happened with the Changeover, I tell you.

KMO: Stephen was de-elevated during the Changeover, right?

Frank: Very much so.

KMO: So, I wouldn't think that people would leave at that time because they disagreed with him.

Frank: Well, it was a slow turning set of issues. Some people wanted to close the gates for a while in order to upgrade our material plane, here. And, you know, we were living on a dollar a day. We were voluntary peasants under a vow of poverty. But some people were saying, “Look. We're getting older. Our kids are growing up. We can't afford to keep living in tents and buses. We need to sheet rock some of these tents. We need to frame some of these structures and make real houses of them. As we get older, we're going to need bathrooms; not outhouses. So, come on. Let's close the gate for a while and stop this crazy influx of thousands of visitors every year who need to be guided, and toured, and fed, and coddled. And stop taking some of these people from jail and from the nuthouse who want to straighten up and we give them a companion to be with them 24/7.”

We call them a tripping buddy. Some of these people were really tripping all the time. Some of these people were highly neurotic or psychotic. And we tried to get them well. If they understood what we were all about and wanted to be here, we'd say, “Okay, here's the lick.”

And also we were delivering babies for free for ladies who were contemplating having an abortion. We'd say, “Well, don't have an abortion. Instead, we'll deliver your baby using natural childbirth, and if you don't fall in love with her and take her with you, we'll raise her for you.” So, talk about a burden on us.

KMO: What happened to those kids?

Frank: Many of them grew up happily and went to the Farm school and are now in college or have jobs. You know, there were so many of them it's hard to keep track of all of them. My wife and I adopted a little girl, and she grew up and had her own kids.

But it was quite a drain on a bunch of folks living without bathrooms. Sometimes we had really insufficient quality of nutrition. That's the reason my wife left; because she was really pissed off. Sometimes the kids would not have shoes that were decent. You'd wear out the shoes, and if people weren't there when the big shoe buy came in on the truck and got put out in the middle of the road someplace, at the head of the road, typically. There was a little place; a dry goods store... tent. And if you didn't hear it through the channels that the shoes had come in, then you just missed out, and that's one way in which social position manifested; If you weren't popular, if you weren't a good networker, and we weren't.

We were pretty square compared to everybody else. Most other people here were either hippies, Haight-Ashbury friends that had been knowing each other since the year zero, or they were highly gregarious, and [my wife] and I were not. We were typical squares. Actually, more typical than most squares. We were techno-squares. You know, she was a highly gifted mathematician, and I was a mediocre physicist, and so we weren't typical folks. And it wasn't that easy for us to talk about our tripping experiences with the rest of the folks on the Farm. We just didn't have any, but we shared the ideals. We loved it here; loved the energy and the goals and everything else.

So that put us in a place where we missed the shoes. And sometimes there would be someone coming back with a truck full of avocados and grapefruits and greens and all kinds of goodies, and we'd miss out on some of that stuff. So [my wife] wasn't real happy with it, and I wasn't either.

We said there was no class on the old Farm. Well, there was no arbitrary social position because of money or privilege, inherited titles or any of that crap, but de facto there was a class structure that made it so some people made out much better than other people. And a lot of it arose naturally. It was along the lines of friendship. I think that's what made groups of people who were more simpatico with each another, you know, totally understandable.

It was like accelerated social evolution from a charismatic revelation – in this case, acid revelation – religious tribe to where we are now, which is a fairly enlightened co-op; modern community. You know, we're more advanced than people in co-housing because we're co-landers. We share the land.

KMO: You know, one thing that just occurred to me was that after the Changeover you went from a population of about twelve hundred down to about two hundred in a few years.

Frank: Right.

KMO: [A] short span.

Frank: Yep.

KMO: It seems to me that two hundred is closer to the size of a traditional human clan or tribe.

Frank: True. That's right.

KMO: And, at this level, everybody can know everybody. And there will be natural cliques and social structures that emerge, but given that it's not [on] a huge scale, there are not enough people for there to be all that many levels in the social hierarchy. You don't get the same sorts of disparities and stresses and whatnot.

Frank: That's right. If I had to characterize the Farm with a single word, I would say kindness. People are so kind and so sweet to each other on the Farm. I think it comes directly from our philosophy that gave rise to the Farm in the first place. You know, the psychedelic spirituality. It was the first religion or philosophy that I could subscribe to that didn't insult my intelligence. And I loved it. You know, it was great: We're all one. We take care of each other. We're out to save the world as the only task that's really worthy of a grown up. And take care of all the children as if they were your own children, and help other people. You know, don't just take care of yourself and feather your own nest only, but take care of other folks who have it harder than you.

So that 's how we got started helping our neighbors, most of whom became very kind and benevolent towards us once they understood who we were; that we weren't just a bunch of druggie, weirdo hippies.

KMO: Most of the things that you've described that motivated people to leave, it seems, would have been motivation to leave before the Changeover. What caused such a dramatic depopulation of the Farm after the Changeover?

Frank: Okay. A little background. We were extremely different individuals to begin with. You know, there were people from all walks of life here, and what brought us together and kept us together for ten years or so was the strong glue provided by the philosophy of the Farm and by Stephen Gaskin and Ina Mae's real charisma, and good sense, intelligence, and loving personalities. You know, they're some of the most loving people I ever met. And also some of the smartest and funniest people I ever talked to.

And here begins a fascinating element of the story, but I'm going to leave off here for this week and pick up on the role that Stephen and Ina Mae Gaskin played on the Farm before and after the Changeover in future posts. Click here for the next post in the series, Growing Up.


  1. So here we see a sort of Malthusian correction in action, albeit on a small and non fatal scale. A community attempts to survive but finds it impossible to deal with the dynamics of such a large group. Policies change, population reduces by about 80%, and the remaining people flourish and prosper to create a model for the rest of the world to emulate. Seems to indicate that it may not matter if we have the technology to feed and care for 7 billion people. The diverse dynamics of that large a group will simply not permit the solutions to be implemented. It's a rather unsettling cognition.

  2. This could also be a manifestation of the Dunbar Number ( ) at work?

    See Aleks Krotoski's recent interview with Robin Dunbar here:

  3. Billy, I watched a short movie about the Farm near the end of which, a Farm resident said that world would be a better place if everyone followed the example of the Farm. She was talking about adopting the philosophy of non-violence, but I was thinking along the lines you articulated here. "Follow the example of the Farm? You mean shed 80% of the population?" We may well be on that track. I hope not.

    Phil, I was trying to come up with the phrase "Dunbar's Number" in my conversation with Frank, but I drew a blank. I was tempted to go back and insert it into the transcript once I had access to the web. The fact that I didn't bespeaks as much of laziness as intellectual honesty.

  4. I hope not too KMO. I would be much happier with the spiritual singularity wherein everyone adopts the non-violent cooperative state of mind based on the realization that we are all one. That viewpoint can become the reality for small groups but as of yet is not manifesting in the population at large. I think it must or we are doomed.
    Thanks for the Dunbar reference Phil. I had just come across that theory in the past few days but didn't have the name connected to it. Education continues, day by day, minute by minute...

  5. The post is quite touching. You know?