The roots of Plenty can be traced to the fertile soils of the spiritual awakening that bred the hippies during the 1960s and 1970s. These were the times when Plenty’s founders — the settlers of the intentional community in Tennessee called the Farm — transformed into a longhaired, tie-dyed, rocked out, exuberant, joyous, tribe of unabashed do-gooders. At the heart of the transformation was the discovery that life had meaning and purpose after all, and that meaning and purpose involved loving each other and creating peace, doing something for the world and having a lot of fun in the process. We had an opportunity to break free of a stringent, materialistic, egotistical mindset and we embraced it and never looked back. Rock and roll was our church music, rock halls our sanctuaries. Our apartments were typically sparsely furnished with mattresses on the floor and the best sound system we could get. The music brought us together and provided an inspirational sound track for our psychedelic, astral journeys and explorations. Beatles, Grateful Dead, Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, Aretha Franklin, Moody Blues, Richie Havens, Youngbloods, Procol Harem, Quicksilver, John Coltrane (to name just a very few) — these were our gurus, our high priests serving communion.
We were lucky to have the help of Stephen Gaskin, a smart, inspirational, down home beatnik-turned-hippie guide. He was able to stimulate and focus a high-level conversation and dialogue in San Francisco to explore and work out what this transformation meant and how we could keep it alive and ensure that it would be more than a passing lifestyle fad. His effort became “Monday Night Class” where, by 1970, upwards of 1,500 young hippies would gather every week in the Family Dog, a rock hall on the shores of the Pacific in San Francisco. Stephen would sit on a low wooden platform and orchestrate the conversation. He once said he thought we needed somebody to do what he was doing and he’d try to do it until someone better came along. He also said all he did was articulate what everybody already knew to be true. What made it work was his ability to hold a stage and keep his head together in front of hundreds of restless young hippies and the inevitable sampling of confirmed anarchists and energy hungry trippers vying for attention.
A lot of what we talked about could best be described as “tripping instructions.” “Attention is energy.” “Whatever you pay attention to, you get more of.” “Don’t future trip. Don’t past trip, and don’t be conceptual in the here and now.” “If you want peace, first be peaceful.” “Attitude determines altitude.” We were working out a kind of Hippie Homo Sapiens user manual. Not typically prone to understatement, Stephen once described Monday Night Class as a “Continental Congress for the Second American Revolution.” We used to talk about “working on our heads.” We wanted to figure out how to get really sane and effective because, as far as we were concerned, we were part of a historic awakening and expansion of consciousness that was occurring around the world.
We were digging up classic religious texts and studying the early Gnostic Christians, the Sufis, Hassids, and Zen masters. We wanted to check in with the old seers and prophets, mystics and seekers. We were starting to understand some of what they were talking about. Most of us had been raised in some kind of mainstream American religious tradition, whether Protestant or Catholic or Jewish but, in most cases, not much of that had stuck. Suddenly we were thinking, “…ohhhhh, I was blind but now I see!” What we were coming to understand made us want to be really really good, really generous, completely harmless, and respectful of all life. We saw how everything and everybody is connected — that we are all one. We truly believed that life was going to be different from then on. I’m grateful to report that life has indeed been more different, more meaningful, and more adventurous than I ever might have dreamed.
From October of 1970 to January 1971, a couple hundred of us set off to circle the country in a caravan of used school buses, which we turned into livable hippie pads on wheels, following Stephen Gaskin on a speaking tour. We were bringing the San Francisco conversation out for a test run around the U.S. This was a time after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the killing of the Kent State students by members of the Ohio National Guard, when many of our generation thought we should be taking up arms against “the system.” Reagan was the governor of California and Nixon was the president of the U.S. Anger about the Vietnam War was reaching a fever pitch. Stephen’s message was clear: if we try to win our revolution with guns we’ll not only lose the fight, but the revolution would end up as just another sorry chapter in the immensely stupid and self-destructive cycle of violence that seems to have forever plagued our species. We wanted to change the prevailing and habitual violent course of history and believed we could.
At the end of the four-month caravan, we landed back in San Francisco with nowhere to go and nothing to do. We decided it was time to make a move out to the land where we could try to put together a community based on our shared principles of honesty, fairness, and nonviolence. We decided to head to Tennessee, to get away from the political noise on both coasts, and where we might be able to afford land. We got lucky and found a thousand-acre farm for $70 an acre. In the beginning, we were just learning how to farm and feed ourselves and deliver our babies and deal with no running water and no electricity.
Needless to say, our Tennessee neighbors were curious and a little nervous about this sudden influx of flower children. We had made friends with one neighbor, a tough, well-respected, irascible good old boy, Homer Sanders. Homer was a kind of country renaissance man who knew a lot about things we needed to learn: plumbing, electrical wiring, farming, and he had a sawmill.
Southern middle Tennessee, close to the Alabama state line, is pretty much on the buckle of the Bible Belt. Representing the local religious gatekeepers was a group of Church of Christ ministers who came out and met with us over half a dozen Sundays. We let them know we were cool with Jesus and could pretty much get behind the red parts in the New Testament (what Jesus was purported to have said). We just weren’t “Jesus only.” We really won them over when we told them we wanted to learn how to farm and wondered if they could help us.
We were collective. The Farm had a printing press and was publishing books and newsletters. Because we didn’t have a lot of money, wrecking crews were sent out to take apart old tobacco barns and abandoned warehouses for building materials. Crews chipped the mortar from salvaged bricks and straightened nails. Our infrastructure was starting to come together with a well, water tower, a clinic, and a motor pool. We had decided to be vegetarians because we didn’t want to get into slaughtering animals and we realized that a lot more people could be fed off an acre growing plant protein than would be possible raising cattle. We started growing soybeans and built a soy processing plant where soymilk and tofu were made. We were determined to be self-sufficient and were beginning to feel halfway competent.
We created our own rock band (The Farm Band) and cut a double album in a Nashville studio. The Farm Band went on tour in a 1955 Greyhound Scenicruiser, with Stephen rapping between music sets. We were riding the back-to-the-land wave, with freak flags flying. Meanwhile the country was consumed with Watergate and getting out of Vietnam. Thousands of visitors were coming to the Farm every year. Related satellite communities began to sprout up around the country, a process that accelerated over the next ten years.
By 1974, three years into our communal adventure, we were starting to get the hang of community living. Our Tennessee population had grown to around 500. We had taken “vows of poverty.” Because we had always been committed to effecting change in the world, one Sunday morning sunrise meditation, Stephen suggested that we start Plenty as a way to reach beyond the Farm to help people who might need a hand. We were very poor but felt that we had more than enough to be able to share. Our lawyer at the time, Joel Kachinsky, created a Charter and got Plenty classified as a 501-c-3 with the IRS, meaning donors could claim a tax-deduction for their donations. On October 4, 1974, Plenty became an official nonprofit charity. It’s no exaggeration to say that at the time we started Plenty, we didn’t have the faintest idea what Plenty would do beyond being in some way helpful.
In those days, to support ourselves, we were farming every square foot of tillable land possible. We had purchased an additional 750 acres and were even leasing farmland from some of our neighbors. In the winter the farming crew went to Florida so they could continue growing food. Consequently, we had crop surpluses. The part of Tennessee where we were living was very poor, so the first thing that Plenty did was give away food from our farming surpluses, especially organic sweet potatoes. Once we started paying attention to where food was needed, our surplus giveaway program expanded to neighborhoods and local poverty agencies in Nashville, Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit.
The other thing that caught our attention was an occasional natural disaster like a tornado that might demolish a town within driving distance of the Farm. We would load a school bus with volunteers, tools, and supplies, drive there, and join the cleanup and rebuilding.
Everything changed for Plenty in 1976 when the Farm’s ham radio operators began to pick up the conversations of ham operators in Guatemala talking about a massive, destructive earthquake that had rocked the center of the country in the early morning of February 4th. A couple weeks later two of us headed down to see if there might be anything Plenty could do to help. When we landed in Guatemala after the earthquake, we were clueless about the country. At first we were simply overwhelmed by the disaster: 23,000 dead, whole towns reduced to piles of adobe rubble, more than a million suddenly homeless. Gradually, we began to realize that it was Guatemala’s impoverished indigenous population of Maya Indians that had borne the brunt of the disaster. We returned home and shared what we had seen, and the community enthusiastically pledged its support. Soon volunteers were sent. At that point in our lives we had adopted the lifestyle of what we were calling “voluntary peasants” and were living on about a dollar a day per person. Nonetheless, we saw ourselves as extremely well off compared to the Maya families we were getting to know. At the same time, we were in awe of an indigenous culture that predated western “civilization;” a culture that in many ways we felt more in harmony with than the one we had grown up in. This was the beginning of a profound personal and organizational awakening for us. We began to understand our broader mission.
On the Farm, we had been developing skills in primary healthcare, midwifery, radio communications, potable water systems, agriculture, and, as vegetarians, how to make high protein soyfoods. Our experience in Guatemala taught us that we could share those same technologies with people in the so-called under-developed world who wanted and needed them. We also learned that development projects need to be integrated to be effective. People might get enough food but if their bellies are full of parasites they’re going to be undernourished, so they need potable water and they need the potable water near to where they live so they can wash their hands. And we learned that one of the most important and most appropriate technologies is conflict resolution. Nothing is more destructive to a project than people not getting along with each other. Over forty plus years, Plenty projects have applied these principles in twenty countries on five continents.
During the first ten years Plenty was operating, having our base on the Farm made everything possible. By 1980 the population of the Tennessee Farm was over 1500. The Farm was a collective, so we didn’t have to pay salaries. The community supported Plenty staff. Food surpluses that we gave away came from the farming crew. The Farm provided vehicles, fuel, and tools for disaster relief. Due to this, our overhead ran about 5%. We started raising money for projects by writing to friends and relatives and gradually built a mailing list of donors and supporters. A couple or three times a year we would mail a newsletter to the list. There was no Internet yet, no email, no website, no social media. We started looking into foundations and occasionally landed small grants. Much of the funding for our programs came from crews of Farm people going to work doing construction, painting, remodeling, or planting trees — some guys even worked on oil rigs in the Gulf. Farm people staffed all of our projects. If a project needed a radio operator, EMT (emergency medical technician), or a farmer, mechanic, or midwife, we could turn to the Farm where we could enlist people we knew, people who had skills and integrity.
In Guatemala we were fortunate to have the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which enabled Plenty to do a lot of big things, from rebuilding the town of San Andrés Itzapa and twelve schools after the earthquake, to constructing a huge two-story multi-purpose municipal building for the Kaqchikel Maya of Sololá, and a Maya community-owned and operated soyfoods processing plant. But there again, the Plenty crew members were all unpaid volunteers, who, without the collectivity and support of the Farm, would not have been able to do any of that work. When their tour in Guatemala or other location was finished, they knew they could return to a job and a house on the Farm. This was a sweet deal until the U.S. economy began to flounder in the early 1980s. Construction work was drying up around middle Tennessee, and the Farm’s solar company, Solar Energy Works, wasn’t getting many jobs anymore (solar retrofit subsidies ended when Reagan took office). In 1983 people were leaving the Farm in droves to find work in other parts of the U.S. Continuing to back Plenty became economically unsustainable for the community. We saw that Plenty would need to come up with the money to pay staff and fund projects completely separate from the Farm budget. Also, and critically, we would need to find additional volunteers who weren’t Farm people. Fortunately, it has worked out. We started getting applications from people who wanted short-term volunteer opportunities. At one point we were getting recently graduated MBAs from business schools like Wharton, Stanford, and MIT. We got better at writing and winning grants from foundations and religious institutions, and our list of donors stepped up to the plate. Plenty donors have been very good to us, contributing two-thirds of our budget year in and year out.
Plenty’s early work, the focus of this book, seeded projects and relationships that are still evolving. We’ve been involved in Guatemala since 1976, on Pine Ridge Reservation since 1981, in Belize since 1985. People we are working with become like family. They invite us to their weddings and birthday parties, graduations, and funerals. When one of our Plenty project volunteers returned to Guatemala fifteen years later to do more soyfood demonstrations, she realized that the young mothers attending her classes were once the little kids she gave soy ice cream to, and now their kids were the ones lining up for soy ice cream cones.
Today, in Guatemala and El Salvador, Plenty assists sustainable agriculture, food, and nutrition projects. Plenty Belize, with an all-Belizean staff, is assisting primary schools in the southernmost Toledo District with school gardens and school feeding programs, as well as installing solar power in remote villages along with an assortment of programs to benefit Belizean youth. Kids To The Country, born from the work of our ambulance service in the neighborhoods of the South Bronx, now brings kids from social service agencies, homeless shelters, and refugee centers, mostly in and around Nashville, to the Farm in Tennessee. Thousands of kids have experienced Kids To The Country over the past 30 years. We are partners with the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge Reservation in supporting family and community gardens.
Plenty is active in long-term recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast that was hammered by Hurricane Katrina and other storms and the 2010 BP oil spill disaster.
Books To Kids, initially created in response to Hurricane Katrina, distributes free books to children in inner cities like New Orleans, along the Gulf Coast, in Appalachia, and after natural disasters. In that Farm meditation meadow, when the idea of Plenty first took root, we never could have imagined the variety of global and cultural paths Plenty volunteers would cross and experience over the next four decades. Plenty continues to be very much a community-based organization, anchored in the contemporary Farm community and the community’s original ideals and dream of a nonviolent world of plenty for all. Neither the Farm nor its original ideals and dream are confined to any geographic location as they have always been grounded in the shared heart of humanity, which powers the work of Plenty and connects us with like-minded people around the globe.
In the year of Plenty’s 10th anniversary we set the intention to one day have a Plenty book. Thirty years later we have a book thanks to the work of longtime Plenty volunteer, Jerry Hutchens. A few years ago, he began compiling the memorable stories of Plenty volunteers from over the past four decades, creating a Plenty Archive. The stories in this book are drawn from the Archives and focus on the early years, when Plenty was part of the collective Farm. Some of these stories make my hair stand on end when I realize how many bullets (some literal) volunteers have dodged. I get chills remembering how truly courageous, resourceful and talented Plenty volunteers have been. Many were teenagers and twenty-somethings when they joined projects in distant lands. Most had never done anything like this before. Most had no formal training in development work. What they had going for them was a compassionate nature, fearlessness and resolute faith in their ability to do heavy things they had never done before. Unsung heroes all. We want to tell their stories because their stories are the clearest evidence we have that everyone is already qualified to help and make a difference. And furthermore, that whenever you do decide to try and help, your efforts will inevitably attract support, often in very surprising ways.
As we look toward the future and watch younger generations coming into their own, we are struck by how smart, skilled, knowledgeable, and aware they are — far past where we were at a similar age. Hundreds of culturally hip, socially and politically savvy small nonprofit NGOs are popping up like mushrooms everywhere you look. And none too soon, given the challenges of climate change, endemic poverty, and inequality along with the political, sectarian, and religious strife afflicting human kind. There will never be a lack of big, important things to do. No need to be bored. Finding and creating solutions, in partnership with others of like mind and heart, is where the action is — and the fun. It turns out, all you need is love.