It’s a normal weekday on Oak Street. Students rush up the hill for class. Cars trundle along the road. A small pack of hens roam the sidewalks.
Now a staple sight on Oak Street, the hens, which belong to senior Morgan Morrison, are emblematic of a growing trend on campus towards agrarianism. Encouraged by the low cost, fresh tastes, and hands-on experience of farming, some Hillsdale students are slowly turning their corner of campus into Jefferson’s agrarian ideal.
Morrison, along with his housemate Josh Pautz ’20, bought three hens last April from a livestock auction at the Hillsdale Fairgrounds.
“Originally, I wanted to buy a chicken to butcher and eat,” said Morrison. “I thought that would impress my girlfriend a lot. And it probably would have, but I realized that, number one, I spent too much money on the chickens to kill them, and number two, they were too pretty and sweet to kill”.
Since his change of heart, Morrison has spent his mornings tending to his chickens — cleaning their coup, refilling their water, and “staring at them in admiration.” To keep his hens happy and healthy, Morrison allows them to free-range all day and return to the coup — which he and Pautz built — at night. Morrison’s dedication to his chickens hasn’t gone unnoticed. According to Morrison, his house-mate, Karl Weisenburger, has taken to saying, “Get yourself a wife who looks at you like Morgan looks at his chickens.”
Although the hens only lay about a dozen eggs per week, Morrison said, “they’re the best eggs you’ll ever taste; the yolk is deep orange and tastes like butter.”
Morrison isn’t the only student pursuing the agrarian dream.
“I think Hillsdale encourages creating and cultivating things,” said Liana Guidone, a senior who began brewing her own kombucha over the summer. “Growing your own garden, or evening doing something a bit easier like brewing kombucha, takes a lot of dedication and responsibility, and Hillsdale definitely encourages those things.”
Kombucha, a fermented, slightly effervescent tea drink, is made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY. According to Guidone, the brewing process is fairly simple. To make a half gallon, boil six to seven cups of distilled water with four tea bags and half a cup of sugar. Then, let that cool before adding one cup of starter which is already brewed kombucha and SCOBY. The length of time the kombucha sits dictates the taste — a longer fermenting period will result in a more vinegary, carbonated batch, while a shorter fermenting period will result in a slightly sweeter taste.
Guidone, who plans to begin bottling kombucha for friends in a service reminiscent of a 1950s milk delivery system, emphasised that homemade kombucha tastes much better than what you could find in the supermarket.
“Maybe I’m a little bit biased, but it has less sugar, less preservatives, and tastes very clean and fresh. When you make your own it’s definitely more organic. It really feels like you’re cleaning your gut.”
Homemade kombucha is also much cheaper — another factor Guidone contributes to the agrarian craze on campus. Whereas one store-bought bottle costs $4 – 5, Guidone can make several months worth of kombucha for the same price.
Christopher Heckel, assistant professor of biology, believes the phenomena extends far beyond the Hillsdale campus.
“I think it’s something specific to your generation. There is a real interest in being able to do something on your own as basic as producing food,” he said. “It gives a real feeling of empowerment. It’s nice to sit down at a meal and say, ‘Wow, this came from my garden. I didn’t have to rely on anyone for this.’”
Heckel speaks from personal experience. Together with his wife, he raises a variety of heirloom tomatoes, corn, and other garden vegetables. Heirlooms are an “older cultivar of vegetables” grown from seeds passed down from farmer to farmer. Unlike crops raised for industrial farms, heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, which means pollination happens naturally without outside assistance and relies on natural pollination from insects and the wind. Every weekend, Heckel sells his tomatoes at the Hillsdale County Farmers Market.
“We love growing food and sharing it with others. It’s a way for us to share our hobbies,” Heckel said. “It’s not about making the extra money.”
Heckel also shares his love for plants with his students. He’s currently growing morning glories for an experiment with his classes, and, each spring, he grows corn with his Bio 101 class as a hands-on way to learn about the scientific method.
“I’m taking botany this year with Dr. Heckel and he’s super into it planting,” senior Madie Schider said. “At the beginning of class he had us plant seeds to see what they turn into and to learn how to take care of them. We planted radishes, corn, and squash, and they’ve already germinated and started to sprout. The faculty definitely does a good job of making us appreciate growing things by hand”.
Although Schider attributes much of Hillsdale’s trend towards agrarianism to the faculty, her own love for planting began long before botany class. Born in Oregon’s wine country, Schider said she has always been known as the “hippy girl who loves plants.” She recalls learning how to properly grow plants by the time she was four and keeping her own plants by sophomore year of highschool.
Now, living in an off-campus house, Schider’s kitchen counter is scattered with an assortment of both her own succulents, herbs, and house plants and those belonging to her housemate senior Callie Shinkle. While she’s currently focussed on bringing the plants she left on campus during quarantine back to life, she’s recently added oregano, mint, thyme, and cilantro to her growing collection.
Echoing Heckel’s sentiment, Schider said, “I just love the feeling of clipping herbs from the plant and putting them right on food — it just feels a bit special.”
Michael Jordan, recently retired professor of English, has also been an inspiration to students. Over the years, he and his family have done everything from keeping chickens and vegetable gardens, to more recently salvaging an abandoned apple orchard at the edge of town.
In addition to his lead-by-example approach, Jordan has also tried to impart the agrarian spirit on his students in the classroom. Jordan taught a number of classes on the subject, including a seminar on the agrarian roots of Western civilization. In addition, Jordan said that he would teach Wendell Berry, a Southern poet, author, and “the greatest agrarian of our time,” whenever his works fit into the English courses.
For those interested in agrarianism Jordan recommends reading “Land and Liberty” and “The Agrarian Family Where It Belongs: New Agrarian Essay” by former Hillsdale professor Allan Carlson.
“I try to have students become aware of the importance of agrarianism on Western Civilization and especially in the 20th century as it has become industrialized instead of family farming,” Jordan said. “One of the theses of “Land and Liberty” is that people who own their own land and cultivate it develop the virtues and integrities that make them good citizens and less pray to demagogues and tyrants because they have an investment in their land and in their person.”
Despite his age, Jordan has continued to maintain the investment he has made in both his land and his person. Every fall, he chops firewood for his neighbors in exchange for fresh produce during the summer. This summer, he began working to clear shrubs and other trees from his newly acquired apple orchard to give the apple trees enough sunlight and space to grow. Of the property’s 400 apple trees, Jordan has been able to cultivate about 15. Although he’s the first to admit that he doesn’t prune his trees as much as he should, he promised that his apples “make some super cider.”
Whatever the reason for students’ recent return to the earth, Hillsdale’s agrarians agree that their efforts have helped to build community in small ways.
“I love hearing from other students and faculty that they’ve seen my chickens wandering up and down Oak Street,” Morrison said. “Just the other day, Dr. Whalen mentioned them and it sparked a conversation about poultry and literature”
Returning to campus after quarantine, Schider too reflected on the role her agrarian endeavors played in settling her housemates back in.
“The herbs that I bought I actually got for my friend’s birthday, so it was kinda like a welcome home for the whole house” Schider said. “We made the plant ours for the whole house and we’re all able to use them. When we potted them I taught two of the girls how to plant plants properly so that the roots are able to spread and stay healthy. As the plants have started to grow, it’s definitely helped our house to grow together too.”