Remembering Stephen Gaskin: A Conversation with the Man Behind the Original Off-the-Grid Farm

Gaskin had a talent for thinking through ways to combine simple living with social engagement. He died on July 1, 2014.
Stephen Gaskin. Photo by Erin McCarley.

Stephen Gaskin on The Farm in 2005. Photo by Erin McCarley.

Forty-three years after co-founding The Farm, one of the first “hippie communes” in the United States, Stephen Gaskin died on July 1 at the age of 79. What started in 1971 as an experiment in collective living for free thinkers, spiritual students from San Francisco, and psychedelic explorers, has evolved into one of the most enduring models of intentional community in the country.

“All the stuff that we have done here, we’ve never asked anyone for permission: no church, no corporation, no state.”

After learning how to farm on 1,750 acres of rough and rugged terrain in rural Tennessee, The Farm became an internationally known model and an exporter of farming skills, tools, nutrition, midwifery, and other forms of appropriate technology for village-scale societies. It has also become a training center for midwifery, permaculture, solar building design, mushroom cultivation, composting, book publishing, and other enterprises. It has maintained its own independent school system for decades, and is often credited with kick-starting the popularity of tofu.

Building on a common understanding core to many intentional communities—the idea that “interdependence equals independence”—Gaskin’s vision for The Farm was not just an escape from mainstream culture. From the beginning, it also included a social outreach arm called Plenty International, a nonprofit organization that won the Right Livelihood Award in 1980 for its work in the South Bronx, Washington, D.C., and in Guatemala’s indigenous villages.

In November 2005, I interviewed Gaskin at his home on The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee. What follows are a few excerpts from the interview, including Gaskin’s reflections on his life, his activism, and what he learned about himself and the world from decades of successful community living.

Erin McCarley: What would you say were the founding principles of The Farm?

Stephen Gaskin: We had all been spiritual students of one kind or another. We still are. I used to say, “If you took all religions, like on IBM punch cards, some of the holes would go clear through the stack.” And that’s what we’re interested in. We agreed that if you felt like we were all one, we could live collectively in a way in which everybody could have some of what was happening.

“Do you have the right to take all these experienced, intelligent activists out of the system and lose them in the woods?”

And we were not Marxist. I think Marx talked about the problem pretty well, but what he said to do about it didn’t work very well because almost everybody who’s tried it has slid into some kind of dictatorship. He even uses that phrase, “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Well, who speaks for the proletariat? Some guys who represented us who ended up with all the power?

So we knew we were going to be some kind of collective, and at that time when we came here we did everything in full meeting and consensus because everybody was there and anyone who wanted to argue, could. That part was good at the time, but we got too big for that ... soon we had 600 people at meetings.

McCarley: When you first arrived here in Tennessee, how many were you?

Gaskin: We were about 275 when we first got here. And we’re probably around that number right now.

People think I started The Farm because I had this lust for power. But when I started in San Francisco, only the people who liked me came to hear my stuff. And only people who liked me came on the caravan with me. We were pretty good friends; we got along well. Many of us had tripped together. Many of us had been lovers. You know, we were tight. But then the movement grew.

And we were getting people so fast, we weren't getting them initiated into the ways as quickly as we ought to have.

Residents of The Farm. Photo by Erin McCarley.

Everyday life on The Farm. Photo by Erin McCarley.

McCarley: In 1974, members of your intentional community started the humanitarian organization Plenty, International. What was the idea behind that?

Gaskin: When we first came here, it was “Right now, get some clean water. Right now, get a place to poop.” We had our nose to the grindstone for about the first four years, until we finally got the chance to take a breath and look around.

Then we decided we’d go on a tour to California and see how the guys back there were doing. When we got out there, I was asked the same question almost everywhere we went: “Do you have the right to take all these experienced, intelligent activists out of the system and lose them in the woods?”

So we had to take that seriously. We needed an outreach arm. We thought we’d call it Plenty because it sounds so innocuous until you explain that there would be “plenty” if resources were accurately distributed. Then suddenly you become radical.

So, I came out one Sunday morning and put the idea out to the group. And everyone said, "Hey, let's go for it! Let's do it!" The first thing we did was to help out some farmers out in Alabama that got into some tornado trouble. Then we heard that the crop had been rained out in Honduras. So we said, "We'll find the beans and get them down there.” We found a sea captain who was bringing freight up from Honduras and going back empty, and was happy to take food back. So we sent 50,000 bushels down there on that trip. It was fun to multiply our muscle with other folks.

Then the next thing that happened was they had a big earthquake in Guatemala. It was 1976. The country was torn in half. Half the country was six feet higher than the other half. None of the rivers and roads matched. It literally tore the country in half. A lot of people were killed from that. And so Peter Schweitzer—who's currently Plenty’s executive director—went down there. He said, "These guys are in bad enough trouble that the technology we've had to learn here at The Farm is actually useful."

So we sent three guys, two toolboxes, and $135. And then Canada had sent an entire shipload of building materials, but they had no one to administer it. And our guys, speaking English and whatnot, got in with the Canadians, made some deals with them, and unloaded their supplies into a giant soccer field at San Andrés Itzapa. They filled up the soccer field with two-by-fours and four-by-eights. We built 1,200 houses in that village.

Sunset on The Farm. Photo by Erin McCarley.

Sunset on The Farm. Photo by Erin McCarley.

McCarley: I don't have the kind of historical perspective that you do. Where do you see our country today?

Gaskin: I have no ambitions for the people other than that they do things the best they can. But I think the political situation of the country is flat-out scary. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it. I’ve never seen this much rampant corruption with the people knowing about it, but not doing hardly anything about it.

I depend on the system out there as little as I possibly can. We treasure our freedom here.

I think there was a key historical shift when a corporation legally became a “person.” They convinced Supreme Court that a corporation has all the rights and privileges of a natural person. That was just after the Civil War. Then later on, this century, there was another decision, which said not only does a corporation have the natural rights of a person, but it has free speech, and its money is its free speech.

And that’s the trouble with how the corporations treat us. As someone from Allende’s cabinet in Chile said, it’s the purpose of the government to protect the population from the ravages of unfettered capitalism.

The ball’s in our court. You know, when you grow up, you quit being mad at your parents and you can do things your own way. All the stuff that we have done here, we’ve never asked anyone for permission ... no church, no corporation, no state.

The thing is that we’re not beholden to anybody. I can’t be fired for what I say. I depend on the system out there as little as I possibly can. We treasure our freedom here.

Mother and Baby photo by WonderMonkey2k
From Ina May Gaskin:
Birth Matters: A Midwife's Manifesta

I think the way the country is now—it’s like a big freeway with a whole bunch of semis on it, and you can’t be a person out hitchhiking among that. It’s just too dangerous. So, The Farm ... this is our corporation. You know? We all are loyal to it. We might as well be—it’s us.

Kids come to me at a certain stage, like kind of an older teenager, and say “Man, I really want to thank you and the grownups for what you guys did here.” They look at the world and say, “We’re pretty free at The Farm. We don’t get messed with much, and the stuff we’ve done to stay that way is like ... to be nice to our neighbors and stuff we’d like to be doing anyway.”

In the short run, the guys who are tied together around greed and who use their money to get what they want have a temporary advantage because of their short-term agenda. But in the long run, being nice is just a better level of organization.