We are strong, because our collectivity has made us that way.
Acceptance speech – Stephen Gaskin / Plenty International
The farm was something we started as a way to be independent and to follow our ideals. Our intention was to do something creative about how to live. We left San Francisco on October 10th 1970, and we traveled: 25 or 30 buses with 250 hippies. Those people had come from all over the U.S. and all over the world in the sixties to San Francisco, to follow the call that came out of there, that there was something new happening about spirit and relationships and human-kind.
I was a little older. I was over 30 before they said “don’t trust anyone over 30”. I’d already been to Korea and to combat and to college and had a master’s degree, and taught in college a couple of years. So I had some other experiences. We traveled. On the road in that great caravan for seven months, 250 to 400 people. Traveling around the U.S., I was talking in schools and churches. This was the time when the demonstrating students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State University. The youth of America were trembling on the brink of violence. I went around the country and said that we can’t get violent, it will dishonour what we’re doing if we become violent.
We became a community on the road. We had to give things up and learn new things. Some of us had to give up welfare. I knew they would take that caravan off the road if they thought it was running on welfare. I knew we wouldn’t survive if any of us were dope dealers. We had to give these things up to be together. Being together was the most valuable thing we found. When we got back to San Francisco we couldn’t exist as a caravan in the city, they wouldn’t allow it. We couldn’t go park in Golden Gate Park, with 250 hippies and start cultivating the land.
On our travels we had met some nice farmers in Tennessee so we went back there. We found a farm and we moved on to it. The first land we bought was 1,000 acres for 70 dollars an acre. We now have 1,750 acres of rolling hills. That is about 5 or 6 square kilometres. Of the original 250 people who came we still have 150 with us, because we have a high commitment. We now have 1,600 people living on that farm. We have other farms and city centres in New York, California etc. We have an ambulance service in the South Bronx in New York, one of the most bombed-out looking places in the world.
When we went to the land we were like a beach head, like going up on the beach and digging a hole in the sand and trying to survive. We’d had to give up a certain amount of ego like demanding a large living space, having a car for each one of us. It was good for us, but after about 4 years we saw that we would become stagnant if we didn’t reach out beyond us and we formed PLENTY INTERNATIONAL. There is PLENTY if it were accurately distributed. We really believe that. Our ideal was based on the idea that if you had a random selection of people in the world and they all went collective with what they had, the strength that they would have collectively would make all of them viable, all of them able to make it. We still believe that. We didn’t know too much about foreign aid at first, we were amateurs. So the first thing we did was to send 50,000 bushels of corn to Honduras. Other people contributed some money. We bought the corn, bagged it and shipped it to Honduras where there had been a storm which had wiped out their farming. That felt good when we did it, but later we saw that we had to do something more than that.
In 1976 an earthquake hit Guatemala. It was tremendously violent. Half the country went up 6 feet, the other half went down 6 feet. It was pretty rough when we got down there and the folks needed some help. We worked there for 4 1/2 years. The first thing we did was to build houses after the quake. But they would bring us terribly sick children, dying babies. We were not doctors but we had learned quite a bit by looking after ourselves. But why wait till somebody brings you a dying baby? If we were going to be of any help we had to look at nutrition. We are vegetarians. Not out of idealism but simply because you can get ten times as much food off the same ground being a vegetarian as you can eating meat. It’s a 10 to 1 advantage for human-kind to be a vegetarian.
The WHO has found that soy beans are a perfect source of protein, a complete protein, containing all the necessary amino acids. We base our diet on the soya bean. We make soy milk, we make tofu which is a very high-protein bean curd. We want the kids to like it so we make it into ice-cream also. The milk is close enough to cows’ milk in chemical construction to make yoghurt with the same bacteria. We found all these ways to use soy beans and started teaching them in Guatemala. We knew that if you want to bring something into a culture you have to let it truly be a part of that culture.
The Chinese called the soy bean the cow of the Orient and made tofu and soymilk an a wood fire with little pots. The Indians in Guatemala had their stone to grind corn with. We showed that they could grind the soy bean that way too. They used their original stone and they could cook the tofu in a pot over a wood fire just the way they always did. It was not hard to teach them to do that because when they served it to their babies they prospered because they were starved of protein. The mothers loved that. We saw we had the makings of a real cultural cross which we wanted to extend outside the home also. So we built a factory, a soy dairy. But the dairy needed a lot of water which these folks did not have. We found a man who had a spring and talked him into letting us use it to bring water to the people i.e. built a water system from that spring for 1,700 people and then we could have a tofu factory and also make ice bean (we call it ice bean instead of ice-cream). The people in the village began making the tofu. The soy dairy we built belongs to them. They offered to sell us some land and I said “don’t you sell any land to a white man, not even me!” We needed to grow the beans in Guatemala, so we took down 20 different varieties of soy beans and checked them out to see what was good at 6,800 feet in the tropics, found which fared best and now we have 200 farmers growing soy beans, and 1,000 ladies who know bow to make soy milk.
In the meantime other things were happening. Don Etkins, a white South African who had to leave his country to avoid being drafted to fight in Angola, worked on our project for 1 1/2 years, then on the farm for another 1 1/2 years. By this time he was a well trained international volunteer. He said he wanted to take PLENTY to Africa so he went to Lesotho. We have been given a nice piece of land near a river to grow food to support our volunteers and build an experimental village incorporating our ideas, introducing the soy bean, and trying to stop the erosion of land which is not being farmed because the men are off mining gold.
Then somebody from the U.N. said “I’ll tell you a place that really needs help. The U.N. can’t thing about it because the U.S.A. is too rich, but the Bronx in New York city needs help badly.” We went to the South Bronx. You would not believe it. It looks like Dresden after the firebombing. Miles of flat rubble. You know who did that? Young black children and insurance companies and landlords. The black children out of revolution and the insurance companies and landlords out of greed. We moved in there. One of the things we had learnt was to take care of ourselves medically. In the U.S. it costs 2,000 dollars to have a baby. So we could not afford retail medical care. In Tennessee the state gave free lessons on how to be an emergency medical technician. This means that you can give heart massage, mouth to mouth resuscitation, drive the ambulance etc. We took the courses until we reached the level where we could teach them to others.
We went to the South Bronx with a second-hand ambulance and set up an ambulance service. We started courses with the local folk so that theycould learn the techniques of reviving people etc. and maintaining the ambulance. The city ambulances took 45 mins or 1 hour to get there and a lot of people died. We came in 7 minutes. The police don’t carry the city hospital number in the South Bronx. They call us. Down in Alabama the police cars used to carry bumper stickers saying “You don’t like cope? Next time you need help call a hippie.” We have a bumper sticker now saying “Next time you want help call a hippie: PLENTY”. We have redeemed the hippie ideal. It was not a fad. It was not a style or fashion, it was a change of life.
Dr Fathy talked about how people understand things they have done with their hands. When we moved to the farm we needed a water- tower. A factory said they had a 5,000 gallon water tower we could have for free but they were 100 miles away. One of us who had a degree in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. said “I will design a machine to get the water tower”, and worked it all out with pencil, paper and calculator. He showed his design to one of our old Tennessee neighbours who was a moonshiner who used to make illegal whisky. This old man looked at this machine and said “It ain’t gonna work.” We went out and the guy with the degree put his machine on the water tower and started pushing it over and it broke the machine, fell and slammed the back bumper of the truck a foot into the ground. It bent the tower and the truck. We learned then that someone who had really done things knew more than someone who had been to college.
One year we decided to support ourselves as farmers. We had a good year but that was really bad, because everybody grows a lot of crop and that makes the prices fall and wipes out the farmers. Go gave us good and bad years and we made the good years into bad years. Then we had bad years and bad years.
We are now also doing a PLENTY project in Haiti, working with Mother Theresa. Her people are so fine. When she wants to “capture” a comity she drops two young girls there to do it. She dropped two in Guatemala and said. “Build an orphanage.” We built a water well for them and other buildings.
In the Bronx we found her people again. One of our guys is security at the door where some of her people sleep. We ran into her people again in Haiti. They said, “Bring your soy bean technology here!” which is what we are doing.
We also thought we had an obligation to the American Indians, all the native folk who have been pushed off their land, losing their language and culture. We heard that some of them wanted to buy land as they couldn’t practice their culture on their reservations. So we got a grant from a Canadian for them. We are very proud of that land. The Indians made a flag for that land and say it’s their centre.
These are the kinds of projects we’ve been doing and the only reason we’ve been able to do them is the strength of our collectivity. We live on 700 dollars per person per year. That is 300 dollars less than the Navajo Indians live on. We operate on one seventh of the level of money that it would take to be taxable. We are well below the official U.S. poverty level. But we are not poor. We are strong, because our collectivity has made us that way. As Hassan Fathy said, when a man helps another to build a house he knows that part of his pay is that the other man will come back and help him build his house. This is the basis of everything we do. We have learnt to deliver babies the same way. We delivered over 1,300 children, only about half of them ours. The others came from all over the world to the Farm to have their baby. People will travel thousands of miles to go to a farm that has dirtroads and live poverty style with a bunch of hippies, rather than go to a brand new shiny hospital to have their baby! We have now developed a large enough statistic to show that our deliveries are safer for both mothers and children than in the U.S. and many other countries. We have been following the natural process. Our midwives made the assumption that if the process wasn’t pretty perfect, how did we get here? There have only been doctors for 75 years. The natural process is perfect by itself about 98% of the time, we find. The midwife recognises the other early and consults a specialist then.
When we started deliveries we felt that having a baby was a sacrament. In the old days the sacraments belonged to the family. Dying is also a sacrament. In my opinion, the preoccupation with violence in the entertainment media is because people are insulated from real life. You don’t see a death-unless you have a white uniform. If you are not a doctor and have been through 12 years of college you are not privileged to see a death. The people who can’t see real death watch it on T.V. We’ve made it into a mystery and put it behind closed doors.
“We happen just by accident to be a very well educated group. We have more degrees on the Farm than the state legislature has. We have the number you’d expect in a small college. So we have strong opinions about nuclear power because we understand it pretty good. Some of our technicians invented this little machine which we call the Nuke Buster. It has elements of a Geigercounter and a fontal heart monitor. It detects arid measures background radiation. It can count from normal background, but we don’t really know what that is anymore since Madame Curie, because all the uranium was dug up and is now on the surface of the earth,
which God had very wisely stashed below the surface so that it didn’t bother anybody. We have taken it out and reduced it to its most poisonous form and turned it loose. We make this instrument on the Farm. It is one of our cottage industries that we survive by.
I’m in this battle about the nukes because I know we are being lied to. Here is a gasoline lantern with its silk bag. Watch this! (The nuke buster registers a very high count) Ain’t that something? There is no label on it to say it is radioactive. You can buy it anywhere. We found it was radioactive by accident. There are hundreds of consumer products on the market that are radioactive. Appropriate technology is that which is good for the people and does not destroy the rest of the culture. This instrument we feel is important because without something to see those rays with, they are like magic. This is a magical instrument.
PO Box 394