48 Hours on Another Planet:
Work Ethics & Anarchism on a Cooperative Farm
Alpha Farm, Deadwood, Oregon
By Sarah Greenbaum
Built in the 1890s and once used for crafts, the only thing in Alpha’s barn nowadays is a resident cow. And a lot of hay.
The barn is one of the stops on the informal tour given at Alpha. Built in the 1890s, it still wears its original shingles. Like most barns, Alpha’s stores hay, but it also serves as the crafts area. Visitors climb through old, termite-riddled planks of wood, through what used to be a wall, into the arts and crafts room. Thick cobwebs form a mold over the pottery wheel and there is a woolly blanket of dust covering a shelf of pale clay objects that were forgotten before they were glazed. The kiln sits in the middle of the small room, filthy, damp and cold. Nothing is created in this room anymore.
But life goes on at Alpha.
The schedule hanging in the stairwell of the farmhouse clearly states that Alpha farmers will work 45 hours per week. Thirty years ago, the rule was instilled as a maximum because members had been working too hard. Today, the rule exists as a minimum.
Alpha Farm is more than just another hippie commune. As a community, it has survived for 30 years and continues into the 21st century, embracing the same ideals and goals initiated in 1971.
Located on 188 acres in rural Deadwood, Ore., Alpha was founded by five optimistic Pennsylvanians who wanted to veer off from the direction of popular American culture which they perceived as individualist, wasteful and selfish. The founders strove to work together in harmony, reduce dependence on material things and treat all of their brothers and sisters as children of God. They pooled their money, possessions and energy into creating the cooperative; current farmers do the same to keep it on its feet.
Alpha is built on land that just might take your breath away at first glance. The farm sits neatly in the heart of the Deadwood Valley, 45 miles from the nearest city, with Alpha-owned mountains on either side and Alpha Creek running through one end. During the colder months, visitors will be told, "You should have seen this place in the summertime!"
But the fall is a much more fitting time to see Alpha. Palpable moisture hangs in the air like heavy film, weighing a person down to the ground, feet sinking deeper and deeper in the mud the longer she stands in one place.
There is a legend that the mist won’t flow over the farm itself. It rolls down off the mountains, wafts over the fields and stops when it reaches Alpha’s fence. Farmers have seen it happen.
Making the fairly spontaneous decision to spend three days at Alpha Farm, a "sustainable community" in rural Deadwood, Oregon, was easy. I had an assignment to write an article for a magazine writing class; the inner workings of such a community sounded like an interesting topic. I guess the idea of actually spending time there did not fully form in my brain until I was on the road.
I left my home of Eugene, OR, on a Thursday evening, the day after Halloween. November 1st is always a bizarre day. I, for one, cannot get rid of the ghastly memories of the night before. This year, I was plagued by the memory of a former love interest dressed up as a female prostitute. He played the role well enough to effectively lodge the negative image in my mind for quite a few days. I don’t think I regained my ordinary senses until the following Monday. And it was during that time that I had decided to make the pilgrimage to Alpha.
I had my list of questions ready. I figured I’d interview the founders and some of the residents. I had called ahead to let them know I was coming (highly recommended), and had secured a "contact person" who would show me around the next morning. Beyond that, I had no idea what to expect. I figured they would know what to do with me when I got there.
I was right and wrong. You see, normally, when someone visits a community, they have some sort of experience with community living. The closest I’d ever come to living in such an environment was during my freshman year of college when I lived in a dorm. Let me tell you: a sustainable community is nothing like a dormitory.
The mountains are actually owned by Alpha, and pretty much every morning they are covered in thick mist â€“ but the mist never crosses the Alpha fence.
The sun sets as I drive West on Highway 126. The road is windy and I play the music loud in order to forget about the reality of my situation.
What was I thinking? Planting my New Yorker self in Eugene for graduate school was odd enough. But what am I going to do on a hippie commune for 72 hours? I grew up in a place where you have to take a subway to go where trees are. My first homework assignment in kindergarten was to spot "signs of spring," and for days I was on the lookout for street signs or billboards that said "spring." I begin to realize, with more than a hint of trepidation, that I am in unfamiliar territory.
I am scheduled to arrive at the farm at 6 p.m., just in time for dinner. I find Deadwood Creek Road, but drive past it inadvertently at first. I look for a turnaround opportunity and before I know it, the town is gone. I have passed through the town literally in 30 seconds, missing it while looking for a turnaround.
I find a place to make a U-turn, and head back to Deadwood Creek Road. Now I just have to find Alpha, which I was told is located "just after the seven-mile marker." I guess if you’ve lived in the country long enough, that sort of direction is common. Honestly, I didn’t even know what a mile-marker was until about a year ago.
It takes approximately 10 minutes to drive seven miles, and with each marker the knot in my stomach tightens. By this time my trepidation has transformed into full-on dread.
I can hardly see as I drive down the long path, which I am guessing is Alpha’s, although there are no signs to confirm my guess. Apparently I have not given up my kindergarten research methods. I don’t see any other cars, so I park mine next to a big house. There are lights on and, although no one is running out to greet me, I assume this is the place, and get out of my car.
My car and I have traveled across the northern border of this country together. We have driven up and down the eastern coast and been stopped by the Georgia Highway Patrol. We have pulled over in some pretty sketchy places, but right now, for the first time, I get the distinct feeling that my car is laughing at me.
I follow a footpath to a lit doorway. There don’t appear to be any locks. The door just swings open. Inside, I am absolutely not prepared for what is going on. At least 15 people are making dinner in a huge kitchen. I immediately detect an air of tension, of urgency, like something has gone awry.
"The first winter, they just about starved to death," says Keith, who has lived on Alpha for one year, as if chanting a legend. "They put everything they had on the line."
Today there are 35 Alpha farmers; among them only two of the founders â€“ Caroline and Jim â€“ remain.
On one hand, Alpha has reached its original goals. On the other hand, the community has recently regressed.
"The people who are in the wider culture have changed," Caroline explains. "The younger people who are here come from a very different culture than we did 30 years ago. It seems to get harder and harder for people to go through their changes, to be comfortable with themselves and be able to work together, and that’s not really surprising since our whole society is so hell-bent on being an individual and not trying to learn how to work together."
Although Caroline does not necessarily share the same ideals with all of the newcomers, she encourages diversity â€“ as long as everyone is willing to work together. "Our parameters are pretty clear," she says. "People have to at least appear to cooperate."
"’Rules’ is a dirty word here. There are ‘agreements,’ not rules," Keith says.
Consensus may be governing the community, but diversity among the farmers’ values and goals runs rampant, making agreement on agreements difficult to arrive upon.
"When the farm first started, the people had a purpose and a goal. They were all on the same page," says Keith. "Well, as time has changed things, and culture’s changed…, reaching consensus is a lot more difficult."
Thirty years ago, for instance, there was no disagreement about the value of having a weekly schedule. The allocation of specific chores is "the only way that this place has survived," Caroline says. Now, however, the schedule hangs in contention in the farmhouse stairwell.
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