MACDONALD’S CORNERS Down a winding road and up a long ..twisting laneway from here is a place called The Farm. The young people who live there describe The Farm as a “spiritually-oriented rural co-operative community.” The locals call them the “hippies.” Both the word “hippies” and the young men and women at The Farm have their origins in the social “movement of the 1960s.
And while much of the merit of the hippies’ probing of society was lost when the movement degenerated into an excuse to misbehave, people like those at The Farm kept in mind the original purpose. Not only did they keep it in mind, they acted upon it. One member of the community, Norman Ayerst, calls The Farm one of the ‘”good spiritual things that came out of the ’60s.”. A look behind the long hair and beards reveals some fairly conservative people with some down-to-earth ‘attitudes. To the 21 adults at The Farm “”(about 25 kilometers from Perth), plain, old-fashioned work is the key “to personal satisfaction.
They are deeply committed to their lifestyles, having taken a vow of poverty (they call themselves “voluntary peasants”). They work to supply themselves with the necessities, but no effort is wasted on acquiring luxuries. Extra time and energy are put into helping neighbours, community projects, or into a charitable organization. At The Farm, the family unit is strongly believed in and supported. Parents are directly responsible for their children, but other adults are like aunts and uncles to the little ones. Divorce is unacceptable: “Once you’re married, you’re committed to each other for life,” explains Norman. “We don’t believe in abortion, and courtship is kind of formal,” he said. “We do have a moral structure considered conservative by some.”
All the members of The Farm are vegetarians and none of them smokes or drinks. At The Farm, says Norman, “We act like a family. All things are held in common (all income is pooled in one bank account). “We’re trying to pay attention to the real things,” he said. “And we’re trying to create an alternative for people who don’t have anything else.” The group wants The Farm to be a sanctuary which can “take on certain people who don’t have a place to go. “We had one guy probated to us instead of going to jail,” he said, explaining that members of The Farm went to court with the offender who was subsequently released to their care.
Because they live so near to each other and their lives are so closely allied, members of The Farm have to be serious about their decision to become part of the community. “A lot of people come through The Farm to check it out,” says Sarah Ayerst. “We like them to visit and stay for awhile to soak it in so they can see if they like it before committing themselves to it.” The soak-in period can last a couple of weeks or a month. If the newcomer comes from a large, loving family, notes Norman, he’s not likely to have any trouble. But if he’s an only child and spoiled rotten, “he might bump up against a few things.” When a person decides to become part of The Farm, he must give up his large possessions. He puts whatever he has into the common pot. If he has debts, they are paid from the pot. Obviously, communication within such a unit has to be good,, or it could fall apart. “We believe heavily in telling the truth,” says Norman. “We keep a running, truthful commentary on what’s going on.”
Obviously, communication within such a unit has to be good,, or it could fall apart. “We believe heavily in telling the truth,” says Norman. “We keep a running, truthful commentary on what’s going on.” Another way to help keep things running smoothly is “to try not to overreact,” he says. “You try to stay compassionate and nurture the best aspects of each person.” A major involvement of The Farm is a charitable organization it founded called the Plenty Relief Society of Canada. “Plenty is the way The Farm gets out and realizes its obligation to the rest of the world,” explains one member of the community.
The Farm supports itself with its construction firm,: the Rapids Construction Company. Donations which Plenty receives are totally separate from The Farm. Only the people are the same. (Plenty is registered with the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations.) It is also a registered charity with the federal revenue department. Sarah explains that “Plenty is an extension of The Farm. It’s the way we extend ourselves and do whatever we can do to help in the rest of the world.” At present, Plenty has people in Guatemala and Bangladesh. Members of Plenty went to Guatemala about a year ago to offer relief to victims of the 1976 earthquake.
The scope of their aid broadened, and they are still there, working with native Indians. “We can go into a country as visitors, and see what we can do and what people need,” says Sarah. “Our hands aren’t tied by different loyalties, and we’re not a political organzation, so we have more direct contact with the people.” As for the amount of time they spend helping with relief work “It’s indefinite; it just keeps growing. “In Guatemala, we don’t try to push technology on the native people. We show them how ours works and how to build one,” she says. “They can step into our culture as much as they want. “We’re very receptive to what the elders see for their people. If we disrupt their way, we could destroy their whole culture.” Plenty volunteers abroad receive food, clothing, medical needs and shelter from the organization. They are not paid. “The money goes for relief supplies.” Last year, Plenty received $32,600 for Guatemala relief. Five per cent of the money went to administration costs, the rest to relief.
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It’s a cult, by any dictionary’s description, but it’s no Jonestown. The hippies, back-to-the-landers, comtminalisls, or whatever you want to rail them, live quietly on a 560-acre stretch of rugged land near Lanark called The Farm and follow the doctrine of a nurtured cultural guru named Stephen Gaskin. There are no strange religious riles here; no wide-eyed radicalism; nothing more bizarre than a quiet hour of group meditation and taped Gaskin recordings on Sundays The Farm’s people call themselves “folks.”
The neighbours call them “the hippies” but any wariness has worn off since The Farm took root three years ago. The folks help with one farmer’s haying. In return, he ploughs The Farm’s Garden. The folks and a local youth group put together a benefit for a family whose home burned. And so forth. “1 think they’re way off base with some of their religious views,” says local United Church minister. Rev. Gordon Smyth, “but as for being good neighbours, I can’t fault them there.”
The Farm’s members fit anyone’s idea of what hippies should be like. The hair is long, the men don’t shave, the women wear braids and long, farmer’s wife dresses. Clinging to the dresses, scampering through fields, there are children (11 of them) everywhere. Folks don’t smoke, drink, eat meat, or use pharmaceutical forms of birth control a sort of potpourri of religious conservatism and naturalism. A few members attended Gaskins Monday Night Class, a weekly gathering, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the late 1960s where The Farm concept was spawned.
In 1971, Gaskin wound up in Tennessee where he and 1,200 other folks now occupy 1,750 acres, the parent firm of 14 other Farms. The Lanark group is the only Canadian branch. The Canadian folks are a mixed bag of former members of other communal groups, carpenters, an agriculturalist, and a Dalhousie Township councillor. “The word ‘cult’ is misused,” says Farm member Norman Ayerst. “l prefer to think of us as a tribe.”
Folks wince at any comparison of their operation to the Jonestown experience. “One of the biggest differences is that we are here completely of our free will,” says Ayerst. “You really have to want to be here.” “Jim Jones (the Jonestown leader) came out of a fire-and-brimstone sort of thing. We’re not there at all. “We identify pretty strongly with the quote ‘religion’ of the native people.” Though Gaskin is like Jim Jones in that he has a large, devoted following. The Farm’s ties to its spiritual chief, though well-defined philosophically, are more relaxed, Ayerst says. “We pretty much go our own way here.”
The Farm’s quarters are less than luxurious. The folks live in a crowded, cluttered, 130-year-old log house at the end of a winding, bumpy laneway. Two small camper trailers take care of the overflow. A two-storey solar house is going up nearby. Members take a vow of poverty. New folks turn over their possessions to the group but any debts they have are paid off out of the communal holdings. “More people show up with debts than with wealth,” says Ayerst.
Farm bills are met by annual tree-planting jobs in various parts of Ontario for the provincial forestry department. That, The Farm’s small general contracting firm. Rapids, and sales of soybean products to health food stores net-led $32,000 after business expenses last year, enough for 30 people to live on and little more. The folks grow little of their own food. The Farm’s relief work goes far beyond Lanark County. The folks’ Plenty Canada program, as an offshoot of the Tennessee-based Plenty International, sent volunteers to Guatemala after the 1976 earthquake there. One Lanark branch member is still in Guatemala. The Farm here raised about $10,000 for earthquake relief and like causes at jamborees, picnics and other benefits last year. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) contributed another $22,000.
The Ottawa Journal
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
22 Sep 1979, Sat • Page 45