Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Communes on the rise across the US

Published:Sunday | January 11, 2015 | 12:00 AM
A group of interns at the Sandhill Farm. - Contributed
One of the greenhouses at the farm. - Contributed
A portion of the 135 hundred acres of Sandhill Farm. - Contributed
A man tends to the chickens at Sandhill Farm.- Contributed
Laird Schaub - Contributed
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Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor

The term 'commune' conjures images of narcissism at the helm, sheepish followers, cryptic, bizarre beliefs, and worse.

For close to 40 years, Laird Schaub and Sandhill Farm turned that view on its head with a spirited and organised system that has become the blueprint for thousands of communes throughout the United States.

The farm is located in north-west Missouri. Schaub's approach is pragmatic and adaptable, avoiding religiosity and quixotic philosophies. Further, the word 'commune' is hardly in his lexicon. He opts for 'intentional community', an all-encompassing term that includes ecovillages, co-housing communities, residential land trusts, co-ops, housing cooperatives, and other projects where people strive together with a common vision.

On the genesis of his successful undertaking, Schaub is detailed: "When I first mulled over the idea of community living, I approached people I knew who might share the same vision of promoting quality of life, not in terms of material possession, but rather creativity and doing work and projects that they enjoy. What we see today is the opposite. People are not happy at work or with their work, but go through the motions because it's the only way of livelihood."

He emphasises commitment to the community, to each other and Sandhill Farm's sprawling acreage that comprise buildings, gardens, orchards, chicken yards, beehives (for honey production), and cropland.

MORE GROUNDED LIVING

Schaub is convinced that this alternative lifestyle could well become the norm, as the American Dream and the stress of sustaining a life defined by materialism become more elusive.

"I am not saying that intentional communities are stress-free. Of course, that's not the case. However, what we have found is that we are more authentic, value-based and grounded."

Currently, Sandhill Farm is home to six adults and one minor. As an integrative facilitation trainer and counsel for intentional communities, Schaub is one of the two members who work outside the compound. As a collective, all monies earned are deposited to what is called the 'common treasury'. Some 80 per cent of their food is grown on the farm, and with such a vast expanse with so few hands, an internship system has been established that has proven invaluable to everyone involved.

"We offer room and board, a US$50 stipend and the opportunity to learn everything about farming and agricultural research."

While many may baulk at the inability to earn an individual income and own private assets, Schaub sees an upside.

"The group accepts the responsibility in the maintenance and sustenance of each individual. Members have more choices in the type of work that interests them and are more content."

He admits, though, that establishing such a functional and productive system can be delicate.

"We have weekly meetings to listen and learn from each other and ensure that we are reading from the same script."

On a couple of occasions, Schaub has had the unenviable task of asking an individual to withdraw his membership because it was adversely impacting the group.

FARM TIME IMPORTANT

To avoid such problems, individuals seeking membership are required to spend time on the farm on a periodic basis before a decision on either side is made.

With an average stay of two years, Schaub has seen close to 50 members leave since the inception of the commune. He notes that communities registering with the Fellowship of International Communities must not advocate any form of intolerance or violence and must abide by a member's desire to leave.

With the exception of "a moment of contemplation" before meals, there is no common religion to which members must subscribe, although key holidays, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, are observed.

"Our approach is more of having a spiritual connection to the land." He mentions Land Day as significant to the group, as it commemorates May 8, 1974 - the day that Sandhill Farm was purchased.

Interestingly, intentional communities are fast shedding their 'alternative' label. There are an estimated 1,600 such communes, with more than 300,000 Americans adopting this lifestyle. Schaub contends that the figure is much higher.

"There are many who do not register with Fellowship of Intentional Communities. The numbers could be twice the official count. Of course, many will fail, but the bottom line is that more people are looking into our way of social development."

He reasons that there is a disturbing alienation in our materialistic society that is causing many to yearn for an existential meaning and purpose to life.

"While people may not go the nine yards and be part of our community, they are aware that our society cannot go on at this rate. There are too many of us and too few resources. We need to conserve, to share and be our brother's keeper. We have to view success not in terms of acquisitions but communal enhancement, contentment and productivity. There is a desire deep within for a sense of neighbourhood, village and community. Society as a whole can learn so much from what we have created here at Sandhill Farm."

Dr Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council. Send feedback to glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @glenvilleashby.