Tag Archive | Twin Oaks Community

How Sustainable is Twin Oaks?

[This article was posted 2014, population, acreage and business counts have been updated for Sept 2019. ]

Twin Oaks is an established income sharing community in central Virginia of 85 adults and 15 children.  Now located on a 485 acre farm, the commune operates 7 businesses, grows most of its own food–organically–builds it’s own buildings, teaches it’s own kids, and repairs it’s own appliances and vehicles.

Welcome to the Community
Welcome to the Community

Here is some of the mainstream and alternative media coverage of us:

Central to the community’s operation is the idea of sharing resources.  Twin Oaks has developed robust systems for sharing cars, bikes, clothes and businesses.  These systems are in sharp contrast to the casual sharing practiced in the mainstream where brittle agreements generally lead to failure.

Turns out to be quite difficult to take good pictures of Commie Clothes
Turns out to be quite difficult to take good pictures of Commie Clothes

One of the many advantages of sharing resources is dramatically reducing our negative ecological effect and carbon footprint.  The numbers below demonstrate we are already near the 80% reduction in carbon emissions that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is recommending by the year 2050.

[Note: It is unclear if the below numbers include our income generating businesses or not.  My guess is they do, and thus we are even more sustainable.  But i will check and indicate here what is true.]

Gasoline: The average Virginia resident uses about 530 gallons per year. Twin Oaks consumed about 15,267 gallons of gas in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of population of 96, that would put our consumption at 159 gallons per person. That is 70% less gasoline consumed.

gas pump noozle

Electricity: The average Virginia resident uses 13,860 kWh of Electricity per year. Twin Oaks consumed 268,065 kWh in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of 96, that would put our consumption at 2,792 kWh per person. That is 80% less electricity consumed.

These numbers pre-date our installation of a 10 kW solar panel array
These numbers pre-date our installation of a 10 kW solar panel array

Natural Gas: The average household in Virginia uses 767 therms of natural gas. Twin Oaks consumed 16,221 therms of natural gas in 2007. With an adult population on average of 87 adults, that would put our consumption at 186 therms per person. That is 76% less natural gas consumed.

Solid Waste: The average American produces 1,460 pounds of trash a year. Twin Oaks produced 18,780.00 pounds of solid waste in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of 96, that would put our production at 196 pounds per person. That is 87% less solid waste produced.

The cultural aspects of community life are as important as the economic ones.  We develop our own holidays.  Almost all our operations are run by volunteers.  We don’t use money internally and there is effectively no crime.

The cast and director of Freegantown
The cast and director of Freegantown

In many ways , the community is an island, culturally and economically separate from it’s immediate surroundings.  This cooperative model, however, is one of the very few solutions that can actually avoid the climate catastrophe the US is hurtling toward at breakneck speeds.

The original data for comparing Twin Oaks with US average consumption of electricity, natural gas, gasoline and solid waste were researched by Alexis Ziegler of Living Energy Farm.

We are a hot internet meme

My story, which i completely made up, is that during the time Occupy was raging across the land, millions of protest pictures went up on line.  Including this one:

sabrina occupy

Now a few years later, people are going back and looking through those images and finding ones which they think are compelling and reposting them.

And while it did not garner much attention when it was first posted, when Evolvefest reposted this image on March 28th, the interwebs got pretty excited about it.  It has been shared over 8,000 times in the last 5 days.  Twin Oaks is also getting people asking to join visitor periods because of it.

Though i am nominally in the transformational festival business, i had not heard of Evolvefest.  Which is an annual event in NJ (not northern Nova Scotia as originally reported).  Their Facebook page throws up literally dozens of images every day, but it is rare for their 90K FB friends to get as excited about an image as they did about this one.

For me what is important here is that effects of the Occupy movement are still lingering, largely invisible to the mainstream media which has moved on to the next hot topic.

Who decides? Three communes models

In the story i tell, at it’s inception Twin Oaks wanted a decision model which was better than simple democratic voting.  The founders thought that communards could make better decisions than what came from the “50% plus one” model which dominated elections and government process.  In the search for the elusive super majority,  they did not want to set a threshold percentage, perhaps because they wanted something more subtle and dynamic than vote counting at the core of our process.  They wanted to leave open the possibility that a small group with strongly held beliefs might be able to shift the groups outcome by carefully reasoned arguments and compelling logic.

TO and EW and Acorn Founder Kat Kinkade in front of a 3 X 5 board somewhere.

TO and EW and Acorn Founder Kat Kinkade in front of a 3 X 5 board somewhere.

Twin Oaks started in 1967, before the feminists had borrowed and adapted the consensus process from Quakers creating a decision tool which could be used in a secular environment.   And since simple majority rule had created so many dysfunctional system it seemed wise to try for something which was more representative, even if it was slower.  Now over 45 years later we often wish we could go back to the founders and say “hey, the problem with this system is that we often can not tell when we are done.  We don’t know when to run over a vocal minority in favor of the super majority.  We don’t know how to interpret silence from most members on most issues.  It would appear that decision making power is tilted towards those who write on the O&I board.”

Six years later, in 1973, East Wind was founded in the Ozarks.  This was another income sharing community, which used the same base concept that members would each work a quota of some number of hours each week (currently 35 at East Wind and 42 at Twin Oaks) which would satisfy their obligation to the community.  In exchange, the community would cover all the costs associated with their living.  In many ways, East Wind was a close sister community of Twin Oaks.  But most of the founders had come from Twin Oaks and they were ready for a new decision making model.

Halloween at East Wind - date unknown

Halloween at East Wind – date unknown


East Wind would embrace a voting model for many of its decisions.  And in a significant deviation from Twin Oaks, it would elect it’s managers every year. [At Twin Oaks typically managers stay until they decide to leave the job or the community.]  But the frontier culture of the Ozarks would influence the East Wind decision method and anarchism would creep in.  People unfamiliar with commune decision making systems often laugh when they hear the East Wind technique characterized as anarcho-democratic, having a hard time imagining how that might work.  But in what might be some libertarian’s wet dream, East Wind uses a dynamic mix of respecting (or tolerating) a high level of personal initiative (often without any formal group making decision process) with voting based group decision making.

Enter Acorn.  Born a mere 21 years ago Acorn had a number of tools available to is which it’s older sisters did not have or choose to use.  Specifically, it had consensus decision making.  For those unfamiliar with the process here is a quick flow chart of how it works:

consensus flowchart

But you can look at it more simply.  We sit around and talk, someone facilitates, but we agree to keep working the problem until everyone is okay with the solution.  There are some technicalities (like blocking and standing aside) but it is a lovely elegant decision system for groups our size (about 30).  Can consensus work with these larger communities (Twin Oaks is currently 93 adults, East Wind is at 73 adults – both communities are at their population capacity and have waiting lists)?  The answer is certainly yes, i have worked in much larger groups that use consensus.  Neither of these communities is likely to change their culture so dramatically as to embrace this newer decision system, despite there being (i believe) general belief that it produces better results.

And Acorn does not have managers.  This is an interesting configuration, it works surprisingly well.  The community is committed to anarchist organizing techniques.  Instead of formal managers various members will in a flexible and decentralized way pay attention to certain aspects of the community.  We don’t have a kitchen manager but we do have one person and sometimes more who is most involved with the kitchen and who generally takes care of the area, manages its needs, and who you should probably check in with before doing something in that area so that you don’t duplicate or frustrate other folks’ efforts.  It is, we like to say, a system emphasizing personal initiative and responsibility.  And without bureaucrats it’s hard to have bureaucracy.  There are no forms, no legalistic process, no committees.  If you want to know or do or change something you have to find the people who care and talk to them about it.

And sometimes, we are just a farm. Luna gardening circa 2014

And sometimes, we are just a farm. Luna gardening circa 2014

October is Conflict of Interest

When i was doing fund-raising work for east European environmental groups, i often applied for money at the Regional Environmental Center in Budapest.  My lover Krista was on the staff that reviewed the grants which i was submitting.  I asked her boss to kindly withdraw her from the group reviewing applications i submitted.  He flatly declined me saying, “You Americans are always worried about conflict of interest, don’t tell me how to do my job.”


Living part time at Acorn is creating some borderline conflict of interests for me (or perhaps they are full fledged and i just cant see them).  At Twin Oaks i am the manager of Outside Work.  I try to find work for members of the community (outside of our cottage industries) and typically the community gets the money (or most of it) and the members get labor credits.

At Acorn i am running the staffing initiative for the construction of the new seed office.  Part of my job is hiring people to work at Acorn (typically for a meager $10/hour) to supplement the Acorn work force on the building, so hopefully we can move the seed business in by the end of the first week in December.

CoI collage

There is a long tradition at Twin Oaks that anyone can post a Vacation Earnings job of the 3 X 5 board.  Vacation Earnings (VE) differ from Outside Work (OW), because with VE the member actually gets to keep the money (with OW you get mostly or completely labor credits).  Though money earned for VE can only be spent when you are off the farm for more than 24 hours (this is how we define “on vacation”).

So here starts my dilemma.  Am i the seed building chief of staff posting a $10/hour position to Oakers who might want some liquidity beyond the $85/month the community provides?  Or am i the manager of Outside Work who is offering these members $3.33 an hour and 2/3rds of a labor credit for each hour worked?

shark life guard

So it seemed appropriate as Outside Work manager for me to bring this up with the planners (which is a group i am also part of).  Therefore what are our objectives here?  Are we trying to make more money for the community or are we trying to provide some additional pocket money for members? Many will answer that we need to find a balance, some of both – all of the above.  But there are reality constraints.

cow CoI

If we tell members that for this job they can only make $3.33/hour because they are getting labor credits for the rest of the work, they are quite unlikely to take advantage of this opportunity, because they can make better money at a regular VE job.  It is also the case that Twin Oaks wants this project completed in an expedient fashion and Oakers are playing an important part of that effort.  On the other hand, Twin Oaks does not want to feel taken advantage of by Acorn or that they are drawing for personal pay labor away from the Twin Oaks system, which needs a lot of labor to run as well.

The key with “Conflict of Interest” is to recognize that others can make good decisions and that often despite how wise or experienced you might be, the best thing is to let others choose so you can be sure that your bias does not slip past you.

[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

A $100K fire

A crew from Twin Oaks came over to help with the cleaning up of Acorns steel building which burned a couple weeks back.  i ran around with a dust mask on mostly shoveling and moving wheelbarrows full of charred often indistinguishable items to the large rented dumpsters.  We dutifully separated out copper and other valuable parts, which one day might be usable.  But it was not until today that i really realized the magnitude of the loss.

Rejoice, myself, Augie, GPaul, Xian and Shua in our appropriate attire

Rejoice, myself, Augie, GPaul, Xian and Shua in our appropriate attire

A newly purchased vehicle was destroyed (despite Daniels heroic efforts to move it from the steel building inferno).  A $2K table saw is now junk.   Tens of thousands of dollars in seed inventory was destroyed (though curiously, some thousands of dollars of seeds which where were being stored in a deep freezer that was completely engulfed in flames may have survived – as did some ice cream).

And it leaves Acorn with the vexing problem of what to do with the hull of the torched Quonset hut.  The structural engineer we employed to review it says that the building is probably structurally sound, but the galvanization which coated the steel has been burned off and if we want to use the building we should 1) paint it to prevent rusting and 2) store things in it which it is okay if the building collapses on it.  Sadly we do not have enough stuff which can have buildings collapse on them and as an operating farm and agricultural business, we have significant storage needs.

Oakers and Acorners help clean the gutted steel building

Oakers and Acorners help clean the gutted steel building

We are faced with an odd problem: we are not poor–the businesses are pretty successful, so we are reluctant to ask for financial help from those who have offered it.  And at the same time we can not afford to build a new building on this site (at leas this year), with the new seed building under construction and other business capital needs.

And while this is certainly a high class problem, it is a problem none-the-less.

Comparing Community Businesses – Twin Oaks and Acorn

Both of the intentional communities I live in have cottage industries.  These are the economic engines which allow us to buy the many things we don’t make or grow ourselves.  Most of Twin Oaks’ income comes from the hammocks business and the tofu business, over 90% of Acorn’s income comes from the seed business.  I’ve been involved with tofu and hammocks for over a decade, but I’m just starting being involved with the retail part of the seeds business.

twin oaks logo


still weaving hammocks after all these years…

There are some highly desirable features to Twin Oaks’ Hammocks business, which i believe are part of the reason the community has been successful.  The first aspect is that production is highly flexible.  You can come in to the hammock shop at any time and weave or do other fabrication tasks.You can work for as long as you like, there is no “boss” telling you what to do although there are people who will train you and direct you, should you need it.  You track your own hours on a trust-based system.

this pattern is called interweave

this pattern is called interweave


Shal doing Hammocks R&D

Despite there not being “bosses,” the hammock shop has a manager (my dear friend Shal)  who is responsible for lots of things related to the work flow of the shop, especially ensuring that supplies are available when needed and that the multiple steps to make hammocks are balanced.  If we need more harness makers, he encourages people towards that work (if they can do it), trains visitors to do it, and will bring in people to do it, if the group is falling behind.  Twin Oaks uses behaviorist incentives during our busy season (which is the winter for production, because agricultural season is off, but we sell most hammocks in the spring and summer) — we set goals for production and we get rewards if we succeed and quota goes up if we fail.   Hammocks management (which I was part of for some years) does not like quota increases being our “stick” to get people to work.  We have tried several other approaches — treats, music and events in the shop, nice coffee — to get people to work in the shop and they have mostly been appreciated, but ineffective.   Now we start with the behaviorist sticks pretty early and raise quota until we have filled the orders, then quota drops down.


Photo by Aaron Cohen


Photo by Aaron Cohen

The Twin Oaks Tofu operation is a much more classical assembly line structure.  Frankly, I think we had to be a much more mature community to operate it.  It has long been the case that a dedicated team of tofu managers (usually working quite hard in the tofu hut itself) maintain an esprit de corps for the large collection of workers in the hut.  Unlike hammocks and seeds, the expectation is if you have a tofu shift scheduled, you will either go to it, or you will find someone to take your place.  tofuBecause it is classical assembly line format, production requires at least one person at each of three stations and the pace of the workers influences the speed at which subsequent workers need to be moving.  Specifically, a fast kettle worker (where the tofu management often works) drives the speed of the entire hut.

The Tofu Hut - a very productive place for its small size

The Tofu Hut – a very productive place for its small size

For years I marveled at the effective anarchist chaos of the Twin Oaks hammocks business.  Lots of workers, almost completely unsupervised, coming at all different times, leaving little to no communication for subsequent workers, working short or long shifts as they liked…seemed to get all the hammocks made.

It was not until I got to Acorn that I realized that there was an even larger step-up in the self organized workplace.  The seed business also has three production stations, which are not a classical assembly line, because each step is temporally independent.  Packing the seeds in little packets, followed by picking the seeds for each order from the storage room where all the varieties are represented.  Finally, the shipper takes the picked order, checks to make sure it is correctly filled and then creates a mailing package for it (occasionally a custom one for oddly shaped orders) and puts it in the post.

Team Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Team Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

There are lots of other parts to the seed business work here at Acorn — processing back orders, dealing with customer calls, prioritizing orders when the customer has paid extra for this, contracting seeds with farmers, germination testing seeds, deciding which seeds to carry, attending trade shows and much more.SESE

During the busy season what most of the people at Acorn are working on are these three order filling steps: packing, picking and shipping.  Hundreds of person hours go into this work, and the amount of management, supervision, training and planning which goes into this process is the lowest I have seen for any of the many business operations i have ever been involved in.  It is, as I have been slightly shockingly referring to it recently, an anarchist’s wet dream.

Because there is so little supervision/management instruction from above, combined with a very high feeling of affinity and connection to the business from the line workers, there is a high level of conscientious behavior on the workers to make sure that the right things get done, and that the right mix of work happens.

My personal experience is that I have come into the picking room, done a bunch of organizing, and taken over the management of that part of the operation without asking anyone.  And we are definitely more on top of things than before I stepped into the picking room.  There is better communication about out of stock items and back orders.  But I hold no illusion that if I were hit by a bus tomorrow, we could not return to the old, less centrally-organized approach and things would function just fine.

And from an anarchist perspective what is most important here is that the line workers are empowered to take responsibility.   They do not feel oppressed by supervisors or managers and they are happy and proud of their work.  Something that exists far too rarely in my experience.

A culture of invitation

My first impression is that the most important difference between Acorn and Twin Oaks is that here at Acorn there is a more robust culture of invitation.  Part of this is people socializing in the living room off the dining space all during the day.  Also there are comfortable and inviting social scenes in the farm house, yellow living room (also off the kitchen), and in the smoke shack.  There are often people to hang out with in any of these places.  After a full day of seed picking today, i hung out in the smoke shake and we listened to Terrance McKenna audios files, which was both entertaining and thought provoking.

But equally important is the ability to plug in at anytime to the work situation; you can see if there are a bunch of seeds orders which need to be shipped and you can ship them.   Other people are doing it, you can join them – especially if they are people you like.  The living rooms of the main residence (Heartwood) have been taken over by the seed business as have a couple of bedrooms.  Living or eating in the main building means the work situation is around you all the time, always beckoning.

making it just fit

making it just fit

And this is mostly a young community, with well over half the members under 30 years of age [in contrast about 1/4 of Twin Oakers are under 30, excluding kids].  So there is a fair amount of internet time spent social networking and playing.  And there is parallel work: people watching a football game and shipping an order, Mac listening to “A Game of Thrones” audio book and doing data entry. So the entire line between labor creditable work and socializing and recreation is slightly blurred.  Add to this what i call “soft quota”, where the community does not generally track the labor of the members and there is an expectation that they will make about 42 hours a week in labor creditable activities, based on their own estimation of their labor.  [In contrast, Twin Oaks has hard quota, where you track and report your hours, they are applied to various budgets, you need to make quota on average and you need to do it in approved budgets.  You can run afoul of the community by being below quota or by over spending budgets.]

The flexibility is very comfortable for me (even though during the visitor period I do have to keep track of my hours). But quota is never my problem.

mac and cat drawing

Mac and Cat drawing – circa 2013 Drawing by Charles Kent

Part of my euphoria about being here is influenced by honeymooning with Mac.  With whom i had this revealing conversation the other day:

Paxus:  So your friend is coming and i thought we should decide if I am going to be with you two, or perhaps for part of the time and if it might be better early in her visit, …

Mac: What are you doing?

Paxus: Planning.

Mac: Why?  She will be here, you will be here, if we hang out great, if we don’t great.  Why are you trying to plan?

i didn’t have a good reason, except my programming.  i am being invited to think differently.