Since the early days of American history, so-called utopian communities have been a defining feature of our cultural landscape. Photographer Joel Sternfeld has captured 60 of them in his new book, "Sweet Earth". A common theme in these societies is harmony with nature, and many also boast noteworthy eco-friendly features. In this series of stories, we'll visit North Carolina, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Tennessee, and learn about their founders’ visions.

Farm Ecovillage Training Center, Summertown, Tennessee, April 2005

Between 1981 and 1985, the Farm went through a period of crisis. Distrust of leadership, lack of adherence on the part of new members to the founding philosophy, agricultural reversals and large debts nearly brought an end to the experiment.

However, a reorganization in 1983 stabilized the situation. The communal form gave way to a cooperative system in which every member had to pay a hundred-dollars-a-month “rent”— the resident population fell from fourteen hundred to three hundred people. Households of fifty gave way to single-family homes. Common money and business holdings ceased, replaced by personal incomes and bank accounts.

Nevertheless, idealism persists. Members may choose to belong to the Second Foundation, the Farm’s alternative communal economy. Plenty, “the hippie peace corps,” is still active in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and the Native American nations. Its bus with relief supplies was one of the first to enter New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And throughout both the Farm’s first and second incarnations, its midwifery program has remained highly respected across the nation. Women doctors, as well as women from all walks of life, come to the Farm’s Midwifery Center to give birth—outcome statistics for more than two thousand deliveries are amongst the best in the nation.

The idealism of the second phase of the Farm’s development is most evident in the Ecovillage Training Center, led by Albert Bates (pictured). Bates is a lawyer who left New York City in 1972 and hiked down the Appalachian Trail to join the Farm shortly after it began. Author of more than ten books, in the early days he established the Natural Rights Center, an environmental public interest law firm, and in more recent times he has created the Ecovillage Training Center, where courses in natural building, rainwater catchment, organic gardening, biofuel creation and permaculture are offered. It is a key site in the emerging global ecovillage movement.

The compost toilet pictured is a hybrid of many building techniques. It was erected during a three-day workshop and is still under construction. The living roof is made from a salvaged satellite dish covered with rubber, carpet scraps, straw and turf.

This story originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Also in this series

Slices of heaven: Tennessee
Joel Sternfeld's photographs of American utopias.