40 Years in the Wilderness

by Laird Schaub, excerpted from his post on Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus, Friday, May 2, 2014

Tomorrow, Sandhill will celebrate it’s 40th anniversary. While not quite a feat of biblical proportions, it’s still a big deal.

The phrase “40 years in the wilderness” comes from the book of Numbers (while that seems an odd name for a chapter in the Good Book, think of it as a precursor to Sesame Street, “Today’s religious story, boys and girls, is brought to you by the number 40… “), and recounts the wanderings of the Israelites after Charlton Heston led them in their just-in-time escape from Egypt (remember the cool trick with the Red Sea where he washed away pharaoh’s army?).

 Moses

After peregrinating at length (enough to conduct the Olympics 10 times) and surviving a series of single elimination competitions with unhappy landowners whose property they’d drifted onto, the wandering Jews* finally settled in Canaan, the Promised Land. Now that’s taking the long view.

* [Not to be confused with ornamental spiderworts, or the apocryphal dude who is reputed to have taunted Jesus en route to the cross and was cursed to traverse the world without respite until the Second Coming.]

Sandhill’s story is a little different. We’ve actually been on the same piece of land the entire time, and our work has been to transform it into our version of Canaan—something we promised ourselves we’d attempt to do. The wilderness in our case has been mainstream society, with its competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial dynamics. Most Sandhillians had been wandering through that desert for decades before accreting in little regarded northeast Missouri to terraform cooperative culture.

Against long odds, we’ve pretty much succeeded. And that’s what we’re celebrating tomorrow (along with Beltane), cheered on by 75-100 of our closest friends.

Today—on anniversary eve—it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on some of Sandhill’s major markers along the way. While the selections are somewhat arbitrary, bear with me.

1975—We lost two of the original four members, and it dawned on Annie and me that we’d have to open up our group to people we didn’t already know if we were going to survive. Though that seems normal today, that was a disillusioning shock at the time. In fact, no one we knew from outside of Sandhill ever joined the community. All of our growth came from visitors attracted by the dream and our description in Communities Directory.

1977—We started making sorghum. After two year’s of apprenticing with Jo Pearl & Eva Grover (septuagenarians who lived about 10 miles north of us), we bought our own mill, had stainless steel pans custom made, and started cooking Sandhill sorghum—something we’re still doing 37 years later. That first year we sold a quart for $2.50 and a gallon for $9. Today we offer quarts of unadulterated sweetness at the bargain price of $12 (and you can order it online).

1979 —In December we completed the paperwork to become officially recognized by the state of Missouri as Sandhill Farm, Inc. Even though we were only three people at the time (Ann Shrader, Tim Jost, and me) it became apparent that we needed the group to own the land instead of Laird & Ann.

1980 —Stan Hildebrand joined us, marking the first time we had a bona fide farmer in our number, and we gelled into a group of five that was stable for five years. During that stretch the only turnover we experienced was one person leaving for Twin Oaks (Thea Page), and another from Twin Oaks joining us (Clarissa Gyorgy). Reaching this level of grounded coherence was crucial for us a fledgling group. Up until then it was never quite clear if we were going to last.

Also that year, Sandhill joined the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a network of secular, income-sharing communities that we’re still associated with today.

1981—Ceilee was born to Annie and me. He was the first child at Sandhill, and I caught him myself in the middle of our bedroom floor on a cold, sunny morning in late January. He became the first kid born at an FEC community that was raised there until he left for college.

1991—Sandhill representatives went on local radio to speak against the first Gulf War. This was a highly unpopular thing to do and tested our local relations (would we get a brick through the window?) even though we were being true to our pacifist ideals. Fortunately our 17 years of careful spadework building personal connections in the local community proved strong enough to withstand the strain, and no bad thing happened. Whew.

1995—Stan became trained as an organic inspector, starting down a path that has defined much of his last two decades and created an income stream that developed into the linchpin of the community’s finances. It has turned out that inspecting farms pays much better than farming.

1997—Dancing Rabbit bought land three miles away. Attracted by affordable property values, minimal zoning, and neighbors who wanted them, the founding group took over the old Petitjean place. Today Dancing Rabbit is by far the larger and better-known group, strengthening immeasurably the foundation for our beachhead of cooperative culture. Today our combined population (counting Sandhill, Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth, and the outliers living in Rutledge who want to be near us) approaches 100 and we almost certainly have the largest number of communitarians as a percentage of registered voters of any county in the US—somewhere in the vicinity of three percent.

1998—We began experimenting with having summer interns. Today it’s automatic that we interview interns to join us during the growing season (April-October), and they are a well-integrated part of our life, but it all began with Lindsey Jones from Berkeley 18 years ago.

 2001—This was the year of too many interns. After a few years of stellar results, we figured if a little was good then perhaps a lot would be great. We were wrong. After being inundated by the dynamics of trying to manage eight at once, we learned to keep the number of interns lower than that of the members. Today our rule of thumb is no more than three at a time, which is far easier to integrate into the flow of life on the farm.

2005—Red Earth Farms was launched on 76 acres adjoining Dancing Rabbit. Now we were the tri-communities. Today REF has close to 20 members and Sandhill, while still the oldest community, is now the smallest of the three.

2013—We started construction on a high tunnel greenhouse to expand our growing season on a commercial scale. This represented a deepening of our agricultural commitment, and was an initiative of the younger generation of members—the folks who are taking over from Stan and me.

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40 Years in the Wilderness

2 thoughts on “40 Years in the Wilderness

  1. […] Twin Oaks was founded in 1967 and turns fifty this year. They have been sharing income since their beginning. Unlike many of the communes of the sixties, it is around and going strong.  The Farm, in Tennesee, was founded in 1971.  While at its beginning “…Farm members took vows of poverty and owned no personal possessions other than clothing and tools…”, this changed.  “In 1983, due to financial difficulties … the Farm changed its residential community agreement and began requiring members to support themselves with their own income rather than to donate all income to The Foundation central corporation. This decollectivization was called the Changeover, or the Exodus.” (Quotes from Wikipedia.)  While The Farm is still around, it is no longer communal.  East Wind community was founded in 1973 by some folks from Twin Oaks.  As they say on their website: “We hold our land, labor, and resources in common.” It continues strong and communal.  And, finally, there’s Sandhill Farm, a small community founded in 1974, where they are still farming and living communally. (Here’s a brief history of Sandhill.) […]

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