Self-reliant, intentional communities use small businesses to thrive in hard times

Published: Sunday, March 18 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

In the 1960s and 70s the popularity of communal living rose. And in the last couple decades more conservative forms of intentional communities like cohousing and eco-villages have developed.

Not all intentional communities are communal. And not all are entirely isolated.

The focus of many groups is to isolate an idea, not themselves, said Steven Reschly, a professor of history at Truman State University.

"They were the vanguard," Reschly said. "They wanted to show how a true human, or a true Christian should live."

But if a community is to be a vanguard it needs to be sustainable, and that's where businesses ideas came from.

Today Catholic nuns sell altar bread, Hutterites in Montana sell pork and the Twin Oaks community sells hammocks.

A modern commune

Twin Oaks, located in rural central Virginia, is an income-sharing intentional community of around 100 members. One of their largest enterprises, more than 40 years old, is casual furniture including hammocks, which grossed around $1 million last year.

Members work 42 hours a week on various activities they choose — milking a community cow, working a business, giving a performance to the community. In exchange, all costs of life — food, rent, taxes, medical visits, school — are covered and the members get a modest allowance of $75 a month.

On a given day at work, Paxus Calta, one of the managers at Twin Oaks, spends the morning homeschooling his son, attends a business management meeting, and spends the afternoon on a production line.

Calta noted the community was always interested in a level of self-sufficiency (around four-fifths of the food the community consumes is grown on their land), but there are things for which the community needs money.

The members tried tobacco farming, the land's original use, but with disappointing results. Later they got lucky when Pier One purchased their hammocks.

Twin Oaks' hammock business is as unique as the values held in the community. With limited resources and no plan to add more, the business refuses to grow. Calta said they do not want to be part of the "endless growth model" found in businesses on the outside.

"There was a big conversation about selling to Walmart," Calta said. In the end the community decided against it.

An American flag pattern for hammocks was discontinued. A green line was introduced using recyclable materials.

The managers at Twin Oaks are not responsible for hiring and firing and they work on the production line. Calta is confident he is the lowest-paid manager for an American hammock manufacturer.

"Nobody works a 9 to 5 if they don't want to," Calta said. "What you give up in personal wealth (living at Twin Oaks), you gain in flexibility."

Afraid that Pier One would pull out at some point — it did — and leave the community with no business to sustain itself, members of the Twin Oaks community diversified some time ago. Now they operate five businesses, including a tofu operation set to exceed the revenue of hammocks.

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