©1990 Richard Cartwright Austin
Life was hard for many homesteaders during the first years. The work was unfamiliar, housing was often inadequate, money was scarce, and even food was occasionally in short supply. Many people could not afford a car or a truck, and although the covenant community, anticipating this problem, provided a van network from the very beginning, some people found it galling to be so dependent. A few desperately searched for jobs that would provide quick cash. Most people, however, learned through experience what they had been told during their orientation year: neighborly support during hard times was more valuable than a marginal, uncertain job.
At the beginning, the challenge to each covenant neighborhood was compounded by problems of deciding upon technologies and economic disciplines, and by the unfamiliarity of cooperative work to get big jobs done. To remodel a house or build a barn, one could not ask a banker for a mortgage but instead had to ask neighbors for their time and talents. Each covenant neighborhood included a variety of people, and not all were poor. Fortunately some had resources that were helpful to others, but this also created tensions. Those who felt desperate resented having to turn to those who seemed more secure, while families with resources resented the nagging feeling that they should give more help to neighbors in difficulty with whom they worked nearly every day. It took time to learn the great variety of services and skills, including friendship and insight, that could be exchanged among neighbors, and to discover that a family who required a lot of help at first was indeed likely to return help at a later time.
Some of the most valuable assistance came from neighbors who were not members of the Covenant Community. They knew the land and the region, and while covenant farmers might wish to improve upon local practices, some of them had to learn the rudiments of farming, so a neighbor who could give advice was appreciated. Some old-timers had rusty, horse-drawn equipment behind their barns that could be rehabilitated and put to work. Others sang the old songs and played the tunes that soon became popular at the Saturday night musicales.
Many new families on the land, however, differ from those that old-timers remember. Some homes are filled with children, but many families have just one or two, and some households include no children at all. Some are friends and companions rather than families in the traditional sense. Quite a few retired couples among the newcomers appreciate the community life and, supported by pensions, work at reclamation more than production. Black families have taken up farming here despite the harrowing tales of hardship they heard from their grandparents. Other families that had been migrant workers appear resilient to hard work, but some of them need special help to broaden their education and resolve traumas from the past. Some of the Vietnamese, Mexican, and Latin American immigrants bring distinctive cultural knowledge and skills to the community.
The traditional pattern of father in the fields and mother in the kitchen is no longer prevalent. Many women who do not choose to work on the farm find jobs elsewhere, so each covenant village includes a day-care center. The village restaurant has become a popular social center, for many families do not eat all three daily meals at home. Several restaurant managers have become sophisticated in obtaining neighborhood produce and other services in return for discount meals, so cash-short families can be accommodated. You need a reservation to eat at one village restaurant on a Friday night, for that is when the best cooks in the area take turns preparing special menus.
In many families one or more people work outside the Covenant Community. Some teach in the public schools or work in the county hospital. Others provide sophisticated services to corporations or universities from their home computer terminals. The Covenant Community encourages interraction with the larger society, for it is not a goal to become isolated. Indeed, now that the community is being noticed, accommodating visitors and tourists has become a significant business. Frequent conferences are housed at Central College, and every summer visiting young people live on farms to participate in work and study that provide the farm family with assistance while expanding appreciation for the covenant experiment.
Nevertheless the community tries to provide for its own needs so that expensive "imports" from conventional suppliers may be reduced. Small canneries have opened in two villages to help homesteaders prepare food for themselves and items they may sell. One village set up a sawmill, added a planing mill, and is now building furniture that is popular locally. Mercy College has developed a sophisticated shop for the reconditioning of old farm equipment, and plans are under way to manufacture certain items for the small farmer that are hard to obtain. Last year the Covenant Community opened a sewing factory in Central City that is making work clothes under the "Back to Earth" label; these are popular in the community and it is hoped that visitors will like them as well. Another covenant member owns a car rental garage to supply those who have only occasional need for a vehicle.
As the Covenant Community matures, relations with the surrounding society become more complex. A waiting list of applicants for homesteads in the county is maintained, but now that the Covenant Community Trust has interest in nearly a third of the farmland, additional land is more difficult to obtain and also more expensive. Some people who have the means purchase land for themselves and then deed an interest to the trust so that they may join the covenant. However, the community is becoming concerned that since it lacks political power, including the right to tax and the right to condemn land, opportunities for the poor are shrinking as land prices rise.
Other problems are also stimulating interest in political activity. At first the additional children from new families were a boon to local schools, filling underutilized classrooms and attracting more state aid. Now new classrooms are needed, and many covenant parents are dissatisfied with the quality of instruction. Two covenant members have already been elected to the school board, but finding acceptable sources of new revenue will not be easy. Since most covenant members live on modest cash incomes, they share the general distaste for property taxes. One member has announced her candidacy for the state legislature in hope of securing a law that would allow the county to add to the state income tax or sales tax as a more acceptable means to raise revenue for local use. She also advocates a statewide land reform program that would use tax funds to condemn land to make new homesteads available. Covenant Community members are learning that they must develop their political influence and encourage others to undertake reforms as well.
Every year a few resign from the Covenant Community. Some of these move away, but others remain on their farms and even continue some of the habits that they learned in the covenant. A few members have been expelled for blatant violation of covenant standards, and one neighborhood was nearly destroyed by controversy. The Community Land Trust, by policy, will not repurchase property that it has already encumbered, for it prefers to extend environmental protection to new tracts, but the market for this land remains strong.
The rapid development of culture in Redemption County rests upon three pillars. The first is the religious commitment that undergirds social and environmental efforts. People need deep resolve to persevere when the way is hard, and they need extra strength to remain helpful when neighborhood relationships are taxing. Since they did not organize as a religious sect, but institutionalized their efforts at the environmental and social levels instead, religious commitment can help the covenant people to remain flexible in these areas. "When our faith is involved, but not at stake," Anne Stem observes, "We are more likely to criticize our social and environmental behavior." The second pillar is education. Every adult in the Covenant Community participates in at least one class each week except during the harvest months. Education helps people to reflect upon their experience. Through classes the discoveries of one can be shared with others and appraised by the group. Continuing education also provides an opportunity to explore interests that have no apparent connection to daily work. In this community a poor farmer may become a philosopher and may even have opportunity to teach. The third pillar is rest and recreation, enjoyment and expression, through arts, worship, music, sports, food, and sensuous alertness to natural beauty. This is not a dour community but a lively one, and the time taken for rest and recreation is used to the full. This is the flowering of a culture.
The landscapes of Redemption County are becoming more beautiful. Many of the larger fields are now divided with fencerows, hedges, trees, ponds, and bogs that enrich the view. More birds and frogs are heard, and more rabbits and squirrels are seen. Many older, smaller fields that had been weedy and eroded are now lush and neat. New timber stands are growing. Tired old farmhouses have been remodeled, and gardens thrive beside them. The landscape is dotted with new homesteads where people can be seen at work. There are horses, cattle, hogs, and sheep, as well as chickens, geese, and turkeys. The countryside smells good and looks alive. Even those who had been most fearful of the Covenant Community now enjoy Sunday drives on the country roads more than they once did. "Many of us have fallen in love again with the land we are tending and the place where we live," Anne Stem concludes. "We want to care for the life here because it is so beautiful."