About This Artwork

Joel Sternfeld
American, born 1944

Alpha Farm, Deadwood, Oregon, August 2004

Chromogenic print, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"
26.5 x 33.2 cm (image); 27.9 x 35.5 cm (paper)
No markings recto or verso


In 1971, four Philadelphians felt a need to change their lives. Instead of directly engaging in social and political activism they decided to, in their own words, “live ourselves into the future we seek.” Together with other urban exiles, they bought 280 acres in the Coastal Range of Oregon. On the property they found an old post office and took its name for their own: Alpha (the first letter of the Greek alphabet, alpha means “the beginning”).

Over the years, there have been thirty-five members (the community’s highest form of affiliation), nine of whom remain at Alpha today. Fifteen to twenty adults and children normally reside at the farm. They earn their collective living farming, doing rural mail delivery, through a cafe-bookstore (the Alpha Bit), and with a consulting practice that offers training in consensus formation.

All decisions at Alpha are made by consensus, a 350-year-old process established by the Quakers. It is based on the belief that each person has some part of the truth and no one has all of it. It is also based on the assumption that everyone is trustworthy (in Quaker consensus, a single person can block a decision if they believe it will cause harm). So the group must work to achieve unity: everyone must agree with the essence of a decision and then support it.

After twenty-five years of attending meetings, Caroline Estes, one of Alpha’s original members, accumulated such wide experience in consensus-based decision-making that her skills as a teacher and meeting facilitator have been in demand by organizations as diverse as Hewlett-Packard and the National Green Party.

After the dissolution of his marriage, Jesse Johnson and his young son Gabriel biked 520 miles down the Oregon coast to join Alpha Farm. Also in the picture: Chaos, the cat.

From the portfolio, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, 1982–2005

Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall, 2008.742




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