The Farm in Tennessee, USA, is one of the oldest and most famous ecovillages worldwide. Even before there was a place called The Farm, the seeds of community began to grow when the first babies were brought into the world by the women – later to become known as The Farm Midwives. The babies who were born on the road during the long journey from California to Tennessee, brought forth a wave of energy, which established a bond, not only to their immediate family, but to the group as a whole. The Farm member, Douglas Stevenson, wrote several books about the Midwifery Project, and also contributed this article.
The school bus ‘Caravan’ which left San Francisco in 1970, was a literal manifestation of the shift from the 60’s era of protest – identifying the things wrong with Western society and culture – and the transition by young people of the time to a period of life based on presenting solutions. The babies who were born on the road during the journey from California to Tennessee, brought forth a wave of energy, which established a bond, not only to their immediate family, but to the group as a whole. The birthing experience clearly affirmed that we truly are all one, one community: from the microcosm, represented by the founding members of The Farm, to the macrocosm of greater humanity as citizens of planet Earth.
Male dominated modern medicine had taken a fundamental human right of passage and turned it into a condition requiring hospitalization and technical intervention. The process of returning birth to the family, was an important step in the empowerment of women and female energy. Birth became a cornerstone in the foundation of The Farm, recognized and honored as a true sacrament, a life experience with the ability to produce fundamental change and growth in an individual, a couple, and anyone connected to, what was seen as, the undeniable miracle of life.
In taking on the care of expectant mothers and the delivery of their children, the midwives of The Farm represented an affirmation of life force. It also became clear right away that the midwives stood at the crossroads of life and death, and that their role was one which carried great responsibility. Trust in the universe had to be backed up with training, knowledge, and skills. The first training came from an obstetrician who heard about the babies being delivered by the women on the bus Caravan. The lessons learned during his afternoon workshop saved the life of the next baby to be born. Then, after arriving on the land in Tennessee, the midwives of The Farm were taken under the wing of a small-town country doctor, who continued their training and education.
Being part of a sacred ritual and sisterhood
During these early years of the community, literally hundreds of babies were born. They were delivered in buses, in tents, in cabins and small bedrooms, all at home, welcomed by family and The Farm Midwives. Each successful, natural birth provided the confidence and positive belief in birth as a natural process that every expectant mother could follow. This network of support gave laboring mothers the strength and core understanding that she was part of a sacred ritual and sisterhood that was universal and timeless.
For the first 12 years of The Farm’s existence, it operated under a communal economy. No one held personal money and all services were provided free to members of the community. In the case of The Farm Midwives, this extended to include people who came from around the world for the sole purpose of utilizing their services.
However, in the fall of 1983, mounting debts forced The Farm to restructure, a change which required each adult member to take on their own means of support, and to contribute financially toward the costs of running the community.
As the various members of the community determined their options and ways they could earn a living, the women working as midwives recognized that over the previous decade they had developed skills which had value. It was only fair that people coming from outside the community, seeking their services, should pay a fee, giving the midwife an income that she would use to support herself and her family.
It had been recognized from the community’s very beginning, that work was the material expression of love, and money was the material expression of work. The services provided by The Farm Midwives were a clear representation of Right Livelihood, a Buddhist concept that had been a founding principle of the community, that your work should be seamless with your ideals. With the recognition that to survive, The Farm had to become financially sustainable, it felt right and fair that the midwives should charge for their expertise and be paid just like anyone else, and that this was not a compromise of their spiritual principles.
The establishment of midwifery at The Farm Community helped inspire and coincided with the return of midwifery around the US, and in many parts of the world. Although a few schools of midwifery have been established, most aspiring midwives attain their training through an apprentice system, working under the tutelage of an experienced midwife. The Farm Midwifery Workshops were established to teach the skills a woman will need to serve as a valuable apprentice. The weeklong intensives also help women become in tune with the aspects of midwifery that go beyond textbook training, aspects for which the midwives of The Farm are best known.
Midwifery in the Third World
Educational training went one step further, when in 2000, one of The Farm midwives spent seven months teaching basic childbirth skills and women’s health information to women from a dozen different Mayan villages in the Central American nation of Belize. The program was a joint effort between Plenty International, a relief and development nonprofit founded by The Farm, and UNICEF.
As is so common all around the world, the knowledge of traditional midwives has been all but lost through systematic post-colonial oppression, cultural poverty, an absence of education, and government pressure to embrace Western medicine. In Southern Belize, where the project took place, women are expected to go to the town hospital when labor starts. The journey might be a two hour drive or further, from villages where almost no one owns a vehicle and public transportation is virtually nonexistent. Consequently, most women give birth at home, attended by members of their immediate family, who have limited knowledge and, often, no resources.
The training was repeated several times using other (non- Farm) midwives as instructors, and approximately 50 childbirth educators went through the program. This is just one example reflecting the work of Western trained midwives and nonprofits, to reduce infant mortality by returning the village midwife to her role of importance in rural communities around the world.
Midwifery in The Farm Community Today
Midwifery continues to be a very important part of the Farm Community. It supplies much needed income and employment for both the midwives, as well as additional support staff. People who travel to The Farm to have their baby or attend workshops will rent cabins and private rooms, shop at the community store, and contribute significantly to the community’s overall economy. The Farm also is home to the national offices of NARM, the North American Registry of Midwives, an organization that was created by midwives from around the country to establish national educational standards and licensing.
But perhaps even more important, the environment that is created by an ongoing flow of expectant mothers, new babies, and women committed to the service of midwifery, creates a bubble of warm energy that permeates the community on a subliminal level. One of the most amazing feelings anyone can experience is the joy of family. With the arrival of each new being, there comes a fountain of energy, of love. The presence of this universal sacrament in the community, day after day, year after year, has had a profound effect, and is one very important reason the community endures and thrives to this day.
Foto: Ina May Gaskin, midwife and initiator of the midwifery