They call it the Farm. Eight years ago they drifted out of San Francisco, a counterculture ark, and sailed south and east to the rolling Tennessee hill country to sow soybeans and solar power side by side with tobacco base and barbecue stands.

It's the biggest and most prosperous commune in the United States today, say sociologists. Old-fashioned hippies a la mode. A long-haired last stand, whose 1,200 members sport their unshorn locks and patched blue jeans as if to testify that a generation of disco, cocaine and conspicuous consumption never happened.

The Farm was born in the fall of 1970, when a man named Stephen Gaskin led a caravan of psychedelic schoolbuses on a cross-country hegira, searching for a homeland where the spiritual currency wasn't bankrupt and the acreage was cheap.

For the first four years the Farm folk lived in the converted schoolbuses and in surplus army tents heated by wood stoves in the winter. The construction crew, which contracted to build condos and apartments off the Farm, provided nearly half the commune's income; but they dreamed of self-sufficiency. They styled themselves "the technicolor Amish," a Gaskin phrase, and they eschewed meat and alcohol, tobacco and leather. They practiced group marriage and smoked the marijuana that they grew to attain a "spiritual high."

In 1971, Gaskin was arrested for the "manufacture of marijuana," which he claimed was necessary for the "religious" smoking ceremonies. Gaskin appealed his subsequent conviction and sentence (one to three years) all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to review the case. Gaskin served nine months in the Tennessee state prison.

Today Farm residents still live ascetically, at least by contrast to the culture that surrounds them. But the old schoolbuses, those not yet sold for scrap, sit rusting in the sun. To house their families - half the population of the commune is under 18 - the men have built the shanties, cottages and two-story, hippie-style chalets that line the graveled lanes winding through the woods. The houses are all furnished with trickle-watt electricity and hot and cold running water. The use of marijuana and the practice of group marriage are banned now, and total self-sufficiency no longer seems a priority.

Highway 31 is a two-lane blacktop winding west from Nashville toward Summertown. It curves past the phosphate plant and coil-spring factory in Mt. Pleasant, past the gentle hills flecked with frame houses and rusted auto parts. Palm readers and Pentecostal preachers hang out signs along the road.

Many of the farmers and the shopkeepers in the neighborhood remember watching the 6 o'clock news the week the county sheriff's office came out to confiscate the marijuana and arrest the commune's leader. And although many neighbors have grown tolerant - "They don't bother us and we don't bother them," says a market owner philosophically- many others tend to temper Christian charity with skepticism.

"What do you mean, no drugs?" A woman in a silvery bouffant, sipping coffee in the Southern Drive-In in Summertown, says the Farm kids often fill prescriptions at the drugstore where she works. "And I could sit here all day long and say I was Queen Mary if I cared to. What's more." she said, the way it looks to her, "they don't use soap and they don't get married.

"And if my child was to come to me and say she aimed to join them, I'd say 'Fine, and you just take the gun and shoot yourself.'"

Last year six Cobra helicopters from a nearby Army base swooped down over the commune, frightening some residents, in a maneuver one Farm Member - a Vietnam veteran - claimed to recognize as an "attack formation."

"Now why" asked an Army spokesman caustically, "would a Vietnam veteran be living in a commune?"

Not far around the bend from the Southern Drive-In, the highway dips and pauses by a trailer and an empty field. A sign points right to Drakes Lane. The rutted, gravel road leads round another bend to an iron-barred gate and a blue-roofed brick gatehouse. Two hand-lettered signs read: The Farm. Please Stop Here.

Back when the Farm was in its uptight adolescence, the gate was more than merely a border crossing. It functioned as a propaganda station where the Farm kids boldly passed out joints of homegrown weed, says a Nashville social worker who visited it in 1974, and peevishly harrassed the visitors: Why did they wear leather boots? Why did they smoke cigarettes? Why are they wearing jewelry?

But next to an annual motocross event in nearby Lawrenceburg, the Farm is the biggest tourist attraction going in these parts; and nowadays the gate is more like a welcome center on the interstate.

Fifteen thousand visitors filed through here last year, checking in and out at the logbook. The shelves are stuffed with matter from the Farm printing shop. A young man in the corner monitors the work crews on a CB, thumbing through a copy of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

The gate crew has a short rotation. "We get burnt out pretty fast answering the same questions over and over," explains a man cheerfully as he flips through a commune phone directory. The directory reads like a Boy Scout campsite compendium - Adobe House, Laughing Creek, Philharmonic Hall. He adds in afterthought, "You know, you'll never understand this place unless you stay awhile." A grin. "And if you stay two weeks you'll never leave."

Philharmonic Hall. A mellow stone's throw from the nearest neighbor dwelling, it perches halfway down a hillside sheltered by a grove of spindly oak saplings that bend double underneath the weight of ice.

Philarmonic Hall is a work in progress. Years ago it was a broken-down schoolbus with kerosine lamps and sleeping bags. The bus gave way to a surplus Army tent; the tent acquired floor, porch, roof and bedrooms, bit by bit, year by year. These days the house is half finished outside in sheet rock and old barn siding, filled inside with rumage sale of sofas and tie-dye. There's a saying in Summertown: "If you want to get rid of something, just call the Farm; they'll come haul it away and live in it."

Philharmonic Hall is home for 36 people and one black-and-white cat named Sapphire. Except for those who'd stayed at home to mind the babies, everyone had been to Sunday services in the greenhouse, where they sat under dripping glass eaves, straight and sober with all the rest of the Farm inhabitants, all 1,200 navels synched in harmony, chanting a single syllable: "ooooooooooooooommmmmmmmmmmmmmm."

It was January, a freezing slate-colored Sunday afternoon. Inside the hall things were warm and rowdy; the juices, as the Farm people like to say, were really flowing. Bob Marley wailed on someone's tape deck. It was time for Sunday lunch, and the 36 souls in Philharmonic Hall were moving on the beat.

Lunch was soyburgers on wheat rolls, with green pepper relish and onion on the side - Big Macs for vegetarians. The women in their long skirts and plaited hair were tending the enormous gas stoves in the kitchen; their men were stoking the boiler in the basement. The children crept and crawled and scampered underfoot and sometimes tugged at the long pigtails of the grown-ups.

"Is that your tape recorder? Can I play with it? I could sing a song into it. I could help write in the note book."

"Anna. Cool it." Anna's father, Phillip, leaned forward to adjust the volume on the color TV set, where the Steelers were murdering the Oilers.

"Hey. Did you ever hear the joke about why the elephant tiptoed past the medicine chest?" Childish squeals. "So as not to wake up the SLEEPING PILLS. Get it?"

"It's not the noise," said Andrew, a young man with a Sunday School face framed in darkly curling hair and beard. "It's the way you don't dare to leave your coat on a chair and expect to find it there next day. I'm not used to living with a lot of people, and everything's some kind of toy to the kids."

Andrew had been a burnt-out case, he explained. "I left home at 15. I did a lot of chasin' and a lot of bein' chased. I traveled lots, to places like Montana." Then Andrew holed up in a cabin by himself and started reading. One day he read about the Farm.

Andrew had a girlfriend now in another house, but his chasing days were over. "Here they tell us to try to fall in love with the whole Farm before we throw in with a lady. Kissing is okay but, uh, we're supposed so save the other stuff until we're married."

Kay, like Andrew, was a newcomer to the Farm. Blond, anxious, with handsome features that always seemed to settle into worried frowns, Kay was into Jesus. "Listen to the words of that song," Kay said deliberately. "The end is surely coming. Do you suppose people think what happened in Jonestown could ever happen here? Do you think it could?"

"We're making quite a statement here, you know," said Sam.

A longtime resident who'd left behind a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, Sam had a kind, proprietary face and an easy laugh.

"We could be into disco. Something wild and crazy. People always asks us what we do for fun here - no bars, no cocaine, no chasing foxes. They don't understand it can be a turn-on to live with other folks, to look into their eyes and let them know you care."

Sam's wife, Ellen, nodded. "I never leave the Farm. Lots of folks here never go off . . . A cop-out? Well, you can't get stronger living in a ghetto collecting welfare or walking on a beach looking at the sunset. It doesn't work that way."

Ellen met her husband on the Farm. She'd left behind a comfortable home in the suburbs of a nearby city where she lived with her parents."The maid came Wednesday. There wasn't any dust anywhere.I saw the kind of person my mother had become and I knew I had to leave."

"What we're doing here," Sam said, "is something we can pass along. A time capsule into outer space. We think it's going to last."

"If I could find a woman who would take my kids," a tall, thin man named Chico said, "I'd leave tomorrow. I miss the road life." Chico was a mercenary ironworker making, so he said, 100 grand a year, supporting a big cocaine habit. He'd gone to Boston where his ex-wife and son were living, and found his wife had gone.

"There was Mark, trying by himself to look after his stepbrother and stepsister, and there wasn't even any food in the refrigerator." So Chico loaded the kids into his van and brought them to the Farm. "They're safe here; they're getting a good education. Besides, no court in the country would award me custody."

Chico smiled a streetwise smile. "It's not so bad. You've heard what they say here. 'We're out to save the world.' There's nothing wrong with that, now is there? For all I know, they might even do it."

Later Farm spokesman said that Chico and Kay had been what is called "on sanctuary," and therefore their views were not wholly representative of those of the group.

It's not easy to explain the Farm, says some of the media crew whose job it is to explain it.

There is a lot to learn. A casual afternoon visitor departs with a head full of statistics about the soy dairy, the work crews and the solar panels on the schoolhouse, feeling more puzzled than before he came.

The Farm, most important, is a collective. Everything is free, from food to clothing to medical care to housing; but as a collective, the Farm takes control of the assets of anyone who joins, as it frankly says in its literature.

The backbone of the Farm economy is still the constructive crew. Farm Foods and The Farm Press augment the income.

Cash flows for each of the last four years, according to the Farm, have exceeded $1 million. That breaks down to $1,000 in expenditures per person per year, well below the definition of the poverty level, but double their per-capita expenditure in 1973.

Food on the Farm, mostly endless variations of soybeans, is plentiful. Two hundred-fifty of the Farm's 1,764 acres are planted in soybeans, greens and wheat; there are 900 fruit trees and grape vines.

There is a Farm band, a Farm radio station, a Farm phone system; a healthcare system with two M.D.s, a clinic and an ambulance; a midwife crew that delivered 1,000 babies last year (half to off-Farm mothers); a teaching staff of 39; a tribal council of a dozen.

There is even Farm-style foreign aid. Spurred by reports that relief efforts to Guatemalan earthquake victims were hampered by lack of manpower, the commune founded PLENTY, a nonprofit relief organization which aids impoverished nations.

Then there is Stephen Gaskin.

"Stephen," as he is always called, is the leader. At 44, he is older by a decade than most of his flock. His sandy-colored hair is long and thinning on top; often he dons a beaded skullcap or some other kind of headgear. His socks seem never to match. With his Fu-Manchu and long, gaunt limbs, he looks the part of Farm guru.

Gaskin talks, and the Farm listens. A man on the media crew says Gaskin has "a good F.M. voice." He tends to lapse into early Haight-Ashbury - "Ain't that right, man?" - but he strews his speech with historical and literary anecdotes and he is engaging and articulate. The media crew tapes all of Gaskin's rambling Sunday-morning services, and all his speaking engagements on the road. Transcripts are available.

A Denver native and an ex-marine, Gaskin took his master's degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. He was still a grad student when the first tidal wave of acid washed over California. It was a turning point: "Before I tripped I don't think I'd ever really introspected in my life."

("He was always very handy," remembers an instructor, Dr. James Leigh. "One had the impression he was bucking for a full professorship." Later on, Leigh says, "He worked this acid-messiah routine pretty nicely on these kids."

In response, media spokesman Leigh Kahan said: "I was at San Francisco State at that time, too. It was a pretty weird place.")

Gaskin taught a class at an experimental college in San Francisco, and soon 2,000 people were crowding into parks and rock halls to hear his gospel - eclectic monotheism blended with bits of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in hip clothing. "There's only one church, and your membership button is your bellybutton. Deep down I think all of us know that."

He brought his people out of the land of Wavy Gravy and war protest to Tennessee, to a ridgetop strewn with blackjack oak where the thunderstorms are so fierce it was said even Indians had feared to settle there.

He led them through the first year when the whole experiment nearly went under, when they almost starved and froze and when they came down in droves with boils and hepatitis. He led them when they overplanted and the crops lay rotting in the sun. He led them when the mood in the Tennessee backcountry turned nasty and a kid was beaten up and had his head shaved. While his marijuana case dragged on, he led them from his jail cell, where Farm people visited him with soy cheese pizza and tape recorders.

"But we got the feeling," says a man who visited the farm in 1974, "that we could ask 600 people the same question, and we'd got 600 answers, all the same, all beginning, 'Stephen says . . . '"

"Gaskin is an organizer and he does that well," says Ron Roberts, an Iowa sociologist whose works span the 150-year history of communes in America."But what he also does, to insure his own survival, is to demand a commitment so enormous - so enormous, that pretty soon no one can ever pry loose."

Disputed Leigh Kahan, "It's much easier to leave than it is to get in."

Roberts visited the Farm in the early '70s. When he wrote about it later he labeled it "authoritarian."

"Bull," says Gaskin angrily."I've heard all that before. Can't we talk about something more original?"

Then he talks about it anyway. "I'm not like anyone else in my league," he says. "I don't live on some island in the Caribbean. I don't have any six-figure bank account. I eat the same food, wear the same clothing, live in the same kind of housing as anyone else on the Farm. This isn't any middle-class guru racket here."

He says this without irony. Throughout the interview he sprawls in bed, shoes off, one sock orange and one sock green, answering the stacks of mail. A half-dozen women in attendance bring him dishes of tortillas and soy yogurt, hand him letters, or sit quietly and listen.

One letter is from Fletcher Knebel, author of "Seven Days in May"; Knebel is writing Gaskin's biography. How much does Stephen's wardrobe cost? He wants to know. What does he usually have for lunch?

Gaskin is a spokesman of a sort. When the Jonestown story broke, an NBC-TV crew raced to Summertown to interview him. The crew filed a tape dubbed with simply "Unlike Jonestown."

He says he spends more time off the Farm now, touring with the Farm Band, than he does on. "It's much too big for just one person to run it anyway."

"It's not that Stephen's profile is lower," says a man on the media crew. "It's more like ours are higher."

Sunday mornings Gaskin takes the stage and holds a mike and in his F.M. voice he tells his people:

"If you love someone, look into their eyes and let them know. Then there's no problem of male chauvinism."

"I once met a man I thought was a hippie. He drank a lot and wrote poetry and read some Hemingway. And I thought he was a hippie!"

"The eleventh commandment after the first ten ought to be: You do TOO know what I mean!"

After services, Gaskin stands around and shakes the hands of his parishioners. They embrace his bony body. They ask him for advice.

Perhaps it is that simple.

Gaskin says his parents come to visit on occasion. Once, he says, his father told him, "You've made this place what it is. And now it's up to the others to carry it on."

Philharmonic Hall is drawing the curtains and getting ready for bed.

"You will tell the truth about us?" Kay fretted. "It is a sin to lie, you know."

Chico leaned forlornly against the window, looking like a man who wanted a cigarette before he went to bed, dreaming maybe of the road life.

Sapphire the cat was out. The cooking chores had been posted on the kitchen wall; the dishes sat stacked and gleaming by the sink.

Quilts, books and mittens lay scattered on the sofa in front of the TV. Tomorrow, Andrew declared, he would find his coat, which was missing from the chair where he had left it.

Upstairs a baby cried. Giggles and whispers were muffled under covers.

"Did you ever hear the joke about why the elephant tiptoed past the medicine chest?"

"Anna. Hush now. It's bedtime."

"Goodnight, Philip."

"Goodnight, Anna."

"Goodnight." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, The gatehouse at the Farm, left; although horses are used to cultivate some of the fields, above, most of the work is done with tractors; Left and top photos by Mark Lyons for The Washington Post; Picture 3, and at right, Stephen Gaskin, leader and founder of the Farm. Gaskin photo courtesy of David Frohman and the Farm News Service; Picture 4, Darryl Jordan coordinated the work and designed the planting of The Farm's two-acre vineyard; photo by Mark Lyons for The Washington Post