The Sustainable Farm — New Monastery?


As I try, without sounding like an idiot, to define the kind of economy best suited for sustainable farming, I think of the old monastic farm and then I do sound like an idiot. But hear me out. I lived and worked on a farm attached to a monastic-like seminary for several years in my student days. We were fortunate to have leadership that supported the idea of raising our own food and we did— most of our meat, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables. Living and studying there, I learned something. The ancient monastery and its farm, still surviving in some places today, was partly an attempt to resolve the conflict between natural growth of plants and animals and the unnatural growth of money.  Monks understood that true independence means separating the practices of the moneychangers from the production of food, clothing and shelter even though that is difficult to accomplish completely. Monks took vows  of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability as a way to separate themselves from the  instability that uncontrolled money growth as well as uncontrolled population growth can sometimes (always?) cause. They call it “living in but not of  the world.”  A quotation from the ancient Pali Canon, written around 500 BCE, makes the point well: “It would be absurd to say the enlightened monk with his heart set free, believes the perfected being survives after death, or indeed that he does not survive, or that he does and yet does not, or that he either does or does not. Because the monk is free, his state transcends all expression, predication, communication and knowledge.”

Granted that this kind of “in the world but not of the world” existence can become a copout. Monks can’t really separate themselves completely from the world of money and so they make a profession out of begging for the stuff. But let’s loosen up the definition of the word “completely” and see what happens. There have been times and places when monastery farms really did (and do) interrelate beneficially with the human community around them in an almost non-moneychanger economy. One of my favorite books is Rural Rides by William Cobbett written two centuries ago. Cobbett was a wrathful scourge of the wealthy and powerful in England including the Catholic Church hierarchy at that time.  Contemplating a medieval monastery crumbling into ruins on one of his rural rides, and with great apologies for having to say something nice about Catholicism, he ruminates: “Here were a set of monks… they could not marry, could not have wives and families. They could possess no private property; they could bequeath nothing; they could own nothing but that which they owned in common….  They could hoard no money; they could save nothing. Whatever they received as rent for their lands they must necessarily spend upon the spot, for they never could quit that spot. They did spend it all upon the spot; they kept all the poor; their surrounding community saw no misery, and had never heard the damned name of pauper pronounced as long as these monks  continued….” Monasteries in those days provided food for the poor around them but sold it to travelers at their “hospices” to make a little money.

Do you see what I’m groping at here?  Cobbett, like other writers of his time (Oliver Goldsmith, especially in his poem, “The Deserted Village”) was bemoaning the plight of the poorer and middle class citizens after England enacted  the Enclosure Acts that forced the peasants off what had been free soil and made land a commodity to be exploited by the rich. Rural Rides on many pages sounds eerily like Cobbett was traveling  deep in the rural areas of the United States today, in an economy where a very small percentage of the people own most of the wealth and factory-minded moneychangers pretend that economy is about encouraging expensive and careless consumption rather than low cost and careful production. Many of his observations could have been written if he had paused in his rural rides at the site of a big old deserted barn in Iowa with an abandoned township school and empty rural church not far away, all crumbling into a landscape of endless corn and soybeans.

Could we have modern monastery farms that practice sustainable agriculture successfully without retreating into vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability and without relying on donations from the rich? I wonder. In the seminary, I used to draw laughs by saying that I really liked monastic life if we could just get rid of those vows and all that chapel praying. I wasn’t exactly joking. I knew that a monastery wouldn’t last long if the monks could get married, own personal property or tell the abbot to go fly a kite, but in many ways monastic life suited me. I hate travel. I hate worrying about money. I doubly hate spending the stuff. Glitter and trinkets bore me. I love what does not cost money, like the camaraderie that we “monks” enjoyed. We had a terrific baseball team. I love singing in harmony and we had a terrific choir too. I love working at farming. I love exploring deeply a world that is only a few hundred acres in size. There is more mystery and beauty in a farm, or even a garden, than I can ever discover in a lifetime. I love good fresh homegrown food. In bad weather, I love spending time reading and writing.

Why can’t a family farm come close to a sort of monastery that could protect itself from the world of paper money? Such family farmers would practice a little poverty, chastity, obedience and stability but not too much. We might need a little subsidy help, but not too much. There’s enough of us who love that kind of laidback life, surely, to feed the world without destroying it.



Certainly would like to see more of your thoughts. I could not agree more. Are you still active here? I’m an urban gardener with a home plot and a large production garden we run at our parish for the food pantry. Please contact me at to further discuss.

Constant Gardener: A terrific quote. Thanks. Gene

Thank you for sharing this, enjoyed this blog.

the Farm’s residents (who do still share certain community tasks) mostly work off the property now. I find it ironic that, like the monasteries, intentional communities have the same sorts of struggles to provide for succession.

Isn’t “working off the property” the equivalent of the monestary’s charging visitors for their services?

We have “outside income,” but we try to keep it to a minimum. It’s all part of avoiding “fiscal monoculture.”

We try to function in a gifting economy, asking visitors to voluntarily contribute what they can “justify, afford, and joyously contribute.” It is somewhat amusing to watch the consternation of some folks: “Just tell me how much to pay, dammit!”

Yes. It’s like that. And the acknowledgment of the awesomeness of that existence, that bewilderment, which in other religions causes people to use the term “God.”

Here in S Minnesota, look up
Small, just starting.

Hello Gene, the title of your article called my attention, and I enjoyed it as well as discovering the huge wealth of information you have shared.. it feels very alive (meaning it feels that you have actually lived all what you are writing). regarding the article there is only one thing I disagree: Monasteries/Ashrams are the longer lasting institutions that our know history knows, and I´m not talking only of catholic ones. They way they manage to last is not by reproduction but by attraction of souls that are seeking this freedom that you accurately describe in the Pali Canon quotation. Nowadays these places are hard to find.

I like your idea that Farms can become&mimic a new monastic form, as a response to this global crisis of over consuption and self-indulgence.

But really the reason why I bump into your article is because I am the coordinator -gardener in a Monastery/Ashram *non/ religious, open, that relates a lot to the near by communities and it is a beautiful (and not easy) challenge to deal with a society around you that still revolves only around money and consumption, but that changes gradually once they see other posibilities.. a life of simplicity and freedom is much more rewarding that anything money can buy. Anyway, I dont want to take a lot of space here.

It is nice to see that ideas like the ones you propose are re/emerging from the collective. Thank you for being such a clear voice.

In case you might want to read about this Paradox Ashram>

there are some essays that you might enjoy reading>
I recomend the ones> The rise of a Paradoxshram and Education for the year Zero.

Namaste, ,

Sort of sounds like Possom Living.I actually know right many people that live basically by the
‘seat of their pants’ hauling scrap,cutting grass,selling firewood doing what ever comes up that day to make their way in the World much of their living is by bartering or ‘trading’ as its called around these parts.Not exactly what you described but close.

If you haven’t seen some of the writings of Eleutheros, his old thing on “like coin”–which he may have gotten from reading your essays for all I know. . . I just thought you might like to read it:

Thank you. How oft have I had precisely this thought. Is this not the image of paradise? Why then are we denied it? It seems not too much to ask to live a simple life close to the land, yet how far away is this ideal for most all of us. Here’s a mystery I have no way of answering.

Beth, I was thinking about the Amish in every sentence I wrote. Gene

It always amazes me how something i’ve been pondering as I go about my day pops up right here in your blog. Many times throughout history monks have designed an agriculture-based product and through focus, diligence and lack of distraction have mastered it into a fiscal success equal to any for-profit company.

I read The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth a while ago and was amazed at the sheer will of the Monks who built up a fortress and started making Green Chartreuse in such a spiritually moving and inhospitable place. And the Shakers are greatly fascinating to me as well.

I think of farm work as Devotion and the repetition and regularity is part of it’s effectiveness on the spirit. I’d love to have a gander at Gene’s book shelves too…

thanks for this piece; i appreciate your willingness to try and put across a difficult idea in such a tight space as this blog. i’ll have to find “rural rides”.

Gene, where would you put the Amish in this ‘monastery’ concept you’re talking about? Have they been successful in remaining both of and in the world?

Terrific post, Gene. It’s always good to come away from one of your posts with a new book or two to read.

I must say, you’re sounding like quite the Anarchist here! I mean, of course, the classical humanist tradition that looks suspiciously at all kinds of hierarchy – state, familial, religious, you name it. The Kibbutzim, as you’re probably aware, had similar ideals and organizational structure, although without the Christian vows, naturally. They were quite successful for some time, but the politics of Israel and the Middle East led to their decline.

Also worth reading about is the Anarchist uprising during the Spanish Civil War. It’s almost unknown here, but Orwell wrote about it, and over the years a good deal of scholarship has been produced. For a brief time, there was a highly functional society organized around roughly anarchist principles; all the major industries were run by the workers, including the railroads, and agriculture as well. It was all but obliterated by both the left and the right – the capitalists and the communists showed remarkable bipartisan agreement that it was far too dangerous to be allowed.

My own contrarian streak leads me to disdain labels, but there are some remarkably good models in history for how we might live better and more humanely. It was great to read about some of them on your blog today. Keep it coming!

My favorite thing about the Pali Canon is that Buddha wouldn’t talk about gods. Stephen Batchelor put it thus in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist:
“This deep agnosticism is more than the refusal of conventional agnosticism to take a stand on whether God exists or whether the mind survives bodily death. It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to the superficial consolations of certainty.”

Thanks for recalling that to my mind, Gene. You’re a treasure.

In my teeny, tiny way this is how I’ve been trying to live. The world keeps intruding but I keep trying.

Those sorts of “monastic” lifestyles centered around community and food do still exist. Nowadays, they’re called intentional communities. There’s one in my neighboring county in Central Virginia ( and another a couple of other counties over. My parents used to sell produce and eggs to the last vestiges of The Farm, a “commune” established in the 1960s in Summertown, TN; the Farm’s residents (who do still share certain community tasks) mostly work off the property now. I find it ironic that, like the monasteries, intentional communities have the same sorts of struggles to provide for succession.

I took a vow of poverty, obedience and stability when we started our farm only the bank calls it a mortgage.

Wherever this monastery starts, I am joining. 🙂

I so enjoyed your essay…I feel what you describe is a very plausible scenario for the future, the future is looking more and more like a return to a world closer to the 1500’s. All that would take is some crazed act by the military and we’d be in that world. I’d join a monastery, I might have liked it for the reasons you describe…you are my brother monk!

I am not an expert in English history, but I wonder whether Cobbett was protesting against the ANGLICAN hierarchy? I think the Catholic hierarchy was under severe restraint at the time.

This blog reminds me of the way Harlan and Anna Hubbard lived “on the fringe of society”. They definitely knew what hard work was but made time for relaxation, art, music, and friends. They really wanted no part of the money economy. You interviewed them and can tell me if I am correct or not.

We would all be better off being a bit more self sufficient, a bit more “in the precious present”.

I totally agree with you!

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