Some Hippies Find That High-Tech Industry Can Keep Them Happy Down on the Farm
05/31/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
They live on $ 1.50 a day but prosperity may be around the corner
Haight-Ashbury is just a street corner now, not a state of mind, and the only people who still wear flowers in their hair are debutantes in their summer dresses. But the hills near tiny Summertown, Tenn. (pop. 800) are alive with the sound of hippies. Dungareed and ponytailed mamas and papas and their tie-dyed offspring are out in force this spring, grooving on the sun and the rock music being pumped from the stage in the meadow below. Is this a '60s time warp? No, just standard operating procedure during "boogie day" on the Farm, the largest hippie commune in the U.S. and one of the few places anywhere the counterculture ethic is alive and flourishing.
Some 1,300 free souls live on the Farm's 1,700 acres trying to prove that the ideas of the '60s can survive in the '80s. But the Farm owes its longevity (it was founded in 1971) to the unapologetic capitalism of the high-tech era. These flower children don't tool leather or make turquoise jewelry or sell loose joints—at least not for a living. Down below the horse pasture, past the two-holer where Farmers sometimes use the Wall Street Journal for bare necessities, stand three mobile homes that house the Farm's $170,000-a-year Solar Electronics Company. Here a gaggle of flower children solder, calibrate and assemble a variety of intricate electronic devices. As the community's own FM station blares out the acid rock of an earlier era, long-haired, bearded chief inspector Douglas Stevenson, 28, encourages his crew: "Come on, we have to get 50 out by Wednesday!"
Most of the workers are assembling hand-held radiation detectors. Designed and test-marketed by Farm hands, the Nuke Busters, as they are called, are smaller (three inches by five inches by one inch) and cheaper by half than similar Geiger counters. Priced at $150, they are intended for private watchdogs who wish to sniff out radiation leaks in consumer products and at nuclear plants. Two hundred are sold each month through catalogs. The Nuke Buster is the creation of Mark Long, 31, a ham radio buff at the Farm who found himself relaying messages from Central America to a relief agency in the U.S. after a 1976 earthquake in Guatemala. A humanities major in college, Long began thinking of other electronic needs. "We were always talking about what we could do to take care of ourselves and help other people," he says. "This began to seem like a way."
The Nuke Buster is just one of a product line that would please many a CEO. Solar Electronics has designed an ultrasound device that monitors a fetus's heartbeat during delivery; these are being sold in the U.S. and Third World countries for safer home and clinic births. It also advertises, for $4,000 and up, a satellite TV receiver system with an eight-foot dish that does the job of most 12-foot dishes. The Farm's biggest money-maker is a $600,000-a-year publishing business, featuring The Big Dummy's Guide to CB Radio, which has sold over a million copies. Another project, Farm Foods, sells vegetarian products, including an ice-cream substitute called Ice Bean. Their solar energy company installs water heaters. The community's excavation company operates a fleet of retread road graders and back hoes; its audiovisual studios hire out to small recording groups. And, not to stray too far from its roots, the Farm offers a free midwife service and has sent volunteers to run a free ambulance service in the South Bronx.
"We came with a flower-child, high Brahman attitude," recalls Stephen Gaskin, 47, the Farm's mild-mannered founder. "We still believe in a lot of stuff the mainstream may not believe in." A former English instructor at San Francisco State, Gaskin led a caravan of 300 pioneers, headed by a rainbow-colored bus, out of San Francisco, where the "scene" had gone sour. At the time he was known throughout the Haight for his Monday Night Class—a giant confab to discuss the war, drugs and current problems. Gaskin still thinks of himself as "a pretty advanced hippie with a lot of real nice friends." His philosophical writings provide the heart of the Farm's spiritual agenda of love and peace. Gaskin concedes that "we've changed," but he denies any selling out of essential beliefs. "Hippies have traditionally been into electronics through rock 'n' roll," he observes. "To use computers to take a good look at ourselves, or to use electronics, is just to enter the flow of our century."
Farm members are also entering the flow of their community. Farmer Leslie Hunt, 44, is running for a seat on the Lawrence County Commission—and the native he may unseat, Homer Hull, says that is fine with him. "It is all right," Hull allows. "I live next door to them, and they don't bother me."
The Farm's mores are surprisingly conventional. Members are monogamous, abortion is not condoned, and singles are discouraged from casual sexual encounters. The Farm itself is governed by 50 elders, not including Gaskin, who is the Farm's spiritual leader and emissary to political demonstrations across the country. Some of the elders are teenagers, and their work is supported by a network of committees dedicated to "figuring things out," jointly and rationally. Especially striking are the educational facilities for the children. While the Farmers live two and three families together in funky, ramshackle dwellings and exist on approximately $1.50 apiece per day, the kids learn their sums in a new solar-heated brick schoolhouse. The parlance may differ from that heard in other Tennessee classrooms. "How many of you went to the boogie yesterday?" first-grade teacher Christine Davis, 29, asks her charges. But otherwise things are familiar. The students sit at neat rows of desks. Samples of cursive script are on display. Spanish and science and even sign language are among the subjects offered by the 12 college-educated teachers, all of whom are certified to teach in the state.
The vibes are good down on the Farm, although the life is not for everyone. While there is a waiting list of 700 people who want to join, 50 to 100 leave every year. The Farm grows its staples—wheat, soybeans and green vegetables. Liquor, meat, cigarettes and hard drugs are off limits. Some adults hunger for store-bought goodies brought in by visitors. Jewish members, who make up a quarter of the population, speak wistfully of bagels. And some Farmers are wearied by the endless palaver of democracy in action, practiced in unstructured communal meetings which can grow tiresome.
Stephen Gaskin is polite, even cautious, when he speaks with outsiders. But enveloped by his people, his talk becomes a kind of freewheeling comic meditation. Just back from a foray to San Francisco, he tells about "the 71-year-old Pentecostal virgin" he met on the plane. "She asked me if I believed in God," raps Stephen. "I had to admit, 'Yes.' And she was relieved, even though I looked pretty strange to her." But finally, like all country preachers, he gets around to a more general message: that there's a world of "short-haired hippies" outside the collective who look to the Farm as a kind of flagship, preserving Aquarian ideals in the face of a violent, greedy, competitive world. "We can't get cynical," he says. "We got to keep that good, sweet, flower-child taste."