Soyabean Politics

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Soyabean Politics
Long hair, beads and vegetarian diets are the hallmarks of hippy culture. And hippies are usually ‘into’ opting out. But, as Penny Sanger discovered, spirituality and wholefood politics can provide a successful recipe for social change.

Photo: The Farm
A Farm volunteer working on their Lesotho project: 'staying connected to the means of survival'.
Photo: The Farm

THE rutted road to The Farm passes a graveyard of abandoned cars and trucks in its long, twisty journey through the cedar swamps and bitch woods of eastern Ontario.

'We look on junk as a resource' gravely explains the young woman delegated to deal with visitors. She is showing the community's primary school, a warm and sunny yellow school bus parked in the snow behind a hundred year-old log house that serves as Farm people's main dwelling. It is the first of several statements and glimpses of a life that is both familiar and oddly worrying. Hip talk, beards and beads, a seemingly 'vague spirituality' are alive and well in this corner of Canada. But if these people are serious about development what are they' doing living in the wilds, cut off from other people and dependent on vehicles that symbolize so much that is wrong about the throw-away society?

The Farm is a five-year-old community of 47 young people. About half are Americans and half young children. All have long hair, are strict vegetarians and have no personal income or bank balances. Last year they raised and administered a budget of more than $100,000 for their relief and development organization called Plenty, which runs projects in Guatemala, Lesotho, and will in the Caribbean. The money came from The Farm's construction business in the neighbouring village of Lanark, from rock concerts and from tree-planting contracts with the provincial government, as well as generous grants from the Canadian International Development Agency.

Farm people play a political role locally, despite their isolation. One member is on the township council and chairman of the area planning board. Another took part with a consumer group in hearings investigating a proposed new hydro transmission line in the area. Last summer the group built a house for indigent neighbours; this summer they will expand their vegetable gardens and field crops to further their aim to become self sufficient in food.

In such a setting it seems unnecessary to ask how decisions are taken. Meetings, the spokesperson admits ruefully, are a way of life of The Farm.

The special meeting is Sunday Morning meeting - a sort of Quaker combination of meditation and discussion. It is a time for spiritual renewal or, as Farm people would say, for getting your heads together. The precepts of non-violence, truth and love, vegetarianism and communalism are underlain by a blend of religious teachings presented in loosely-argued books by Stephen Gaskin, 'our teacher'. Gaskin's homebase is The Farm's headquarters in Summertown, Tennessee, where some 1300 followers live and work. His teachings refer with equal weight to the Holy Spirit. Buddha, Jesus, God, Mohammed, Krishna, the Universe and assorted gurus. The main message seems to be how to connect with energy, the life-force, the One-ness that unites and liberates mankind. 'Helping man is a good place to start your search for God': 'Enlightenment is not so much making it to the never-never land through the secret passageway it's more like getting off your tail and doing something.'

It's not a complex or revolutionary thought. It comes from Gaskin loosely strung out with anecdotes and often in almost impenetrable hip jargon, illustrated with close-ups of loving faces, bare babies and bursting sunrises. But the fact is it works, and seems to succeed in knitting together and turning on many of the disaffected young (and some old) refugees from an alienated, materialistic society, whom it attracts in many thousands annually.

Proof is in the Farm people's varied accomplishments, especially at the original Farm in Tennessee. There, in ten years, with an annual budget of up to $1¼m, residents have started a solar electronics company: doing work on photovoltaics: set up a book publishing company: developed and marketed a pocket-size radiation detector: established a flourishing midwife service: founded a research team to work on pesticide levels in food: started an emergency ambulance service in the violence-ridden South Bronx Section of New York: taken the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to court over the Tennessee Valley Authority's nuclear plant at Sequoyah and started several rock groups including the most popular one called The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC vs NRC). All in addition to learning to grow crops, process food and live off the land in ever growing numbers.

This leads directly to another cornerstone of The Farm. A counterbalance to the proclaimed spiritual basis of Farm action is the lowly soyabean - an unloved (at least in North American diets) legume that is raised as a staple in the Farm's non-meat, non-dairy programme and promoted widely in their projects in developing countries. Soy milk, tofu and soy ice cream are produced in a soy dairy set up by Plenty volunteers in Guatemala and now, since Plenty people were driven out by increasing political violence, run by Guatemalans. Schools, clinics, houses and a gravity-water system serving three villages are also part of the Plenty legacy there. In Lesotho and Haiti similar projects aimed at alleviating poverty through agriculture and simple technology are under Way.

The Farm, along with thousands of other now-failed communities, has its roots in the sixties, in San Francisco. The psychedelic search of that colourful period turned for Gaskin and his friends into a geographical one that ended in Tennessee, and started out again when the community looked around and saw the need to share its self-sufficiency techniques with its neighbours. Plenty was born as volunteers fanned out further and further, taking with them the skills they had developed themselves from necessity.

Nowaday's Farm people with their sixties style and hip talk attract a lot of scepticism. More serious doubters ask what are these people trying to do, flogging vegetarianism in meat-eating societies? (Answer: they don't, they try to supplement inadequate diets with easily grown foods that are low on the food chain). Or aren't they all into wife-sharing and smoking dope (Answer: No) Or, how regimented and hierarchical is the set-up'?

The answer to the last question is most difficult. Stephen Gaskin has devolved leadership to elected councils but his personal influence is still profound. Conformity and leadership obviously exist: the values of the community come first. But any tendency to draw parallels between Farm membership and the brainwashing techniques of some contemporary religious sects is mistaken. It is much easier to leave The Farm (which now has a waiting list) than to get into it.

As to that other question about why they live apart, the Lanark spokeswoman gestured about her, 'We like to stay connected to the means of survival - bringing up our children and educating them, growing our food and building our houses.' Survival for these ex-hippies has become a global trip.

Penny Sanger is a freelance journalist based in Ottowa.

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New Internationalist issue 113 magazine cover This article is from the July 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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