Hiram College

This is part one of a three-part series by Hiram students writing about community resilience and what they’re doing and learning as they explore the concept.

Authors: Michelle Picciano and Jordan Everett

About an hour outside of Cleveland, Ohio are vast amounts of land that will make you forget that you are just a drive from the bustling city and its suburbs. Whether this may seem daunting or picturesque is up to you, for the six students of an environmental studies class taught by Professor Debbie Kasper called “Building Community Resilience,” this was the perfect setting to put our new knowledge to work and to gain more new skills and knowledge in the process.

In 1995, Joyce and Tom Cole, two ambitious and intelligent people, graduated from Hiram College.
Students Receiving instructionThey both earned degrees in Biology.  They went on to get advanced degrees in their chosen professions, live in large cities (first Cleveland and then Cincinnati), and have successful careers.  Fast forward a few years and this couple finds itself co-owners of Spencer-Lotusdale Farm in Chardon, OH where our class visited them on a beautiful May day.

Their quest is to turn this farm, which has been in the family for generations, into an ecologically regenerative, productive, and sustainable livelihood and source of healthy food for their families and the surrounding community. Our class got a glimpse of the beginning of their journey.

So why did this family willingly abandon their jobs and move to a life where the work is physically more demanding, the hours seemingly endless, and the lifestyle not as glamorous?  They are a part of a wave of people who are not concerned with material or modern conveniences, but see it as a challenge to take head-on to better their family and surrounding community.

The Resilience Institute defines community resilience as “the ability to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change.”

In this class, we’ve been learning about how to build that capacity through learning practical skills, becoming more energy efficient, localizing economies, encouraging community input, building networks and relationships, creating opportunities for creativity, and more. These things may not seem important in today’s modern world of being able to talk with someone thousands of miles away and eating strawberries year-round, but they remain more important than ever.  The complex, far-flung delivery systems we rely so heavilyon are precarious.  By building relationships closer to home, we can grow less dependent on unreliable factors, increase security, and improve quality of life at the same time.


Student relaxingBut how do you get started?   That’s what we went to Spencer-Lotusdale Farm to find out.

Despite the fact that they themselves are just starting out, it was clear when we arrived that they had already done a lot of work. There were logs by an old barn about to be used for growing Shiitake mushrooms, pastures and pens for goats, pastured meat chickens and laying hens, plenty of open fields waiting to be used, and a generous family willing to show us the rest.  Being an old farmstead, there were also lots of piles of stuff just waiting to be turned into resources.

We took away a lot from this field trip, but one skill they taught us was how to create a hugelkultur garden–a process that would take a lot of what looked like waste (old blocks and tree clippings) and turn it into a valuable resource.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, hugelkultur is German for hill-culture, and is a form of making raised gardens on a mound of woody debris.

  Students learning farming skillsStudents working on farmStudents working on farm

These gardens have multiple benefits.  They provide a way to use woody debris which would otherwise need to be hauled away or burned.  And because the wood absorbs and holds water and lots of nutrients, they enable you to create a garden without irrigation or fertilizer.  We used the old block to create a short wall around the bed, which we filled with tree cuttings–larger logs on the bottom, smaller twigs on top.  We filled in the gaps with corn cobs (you can also use fallen leaves), and topped it off with rich soil from an old cattle barn.

It was amazing to see how quickly all of us working together created this brand new garden bed.  In our short time there, we learned about the story of these farmers and the farm they are working to transform, got a tour of the farm, and helped them make something it would have taken two people all day to do by themselves.  Joyce kindly provided ice cold water and hand-made herbal infusions to refresh us during our short breaks.

In the last minutes of our time there, it seemed like none of us wanted to leave. This was really evident in two fellow students who couldn’t tear themselves away from the pregnant pig who was grazing around her pen.

Before this experience, we had never even heard of an elevated garden.  Now, we not only think it’s a great idea, we can say that we’ve made one.

Students working on farm

We also learned a lot about our fellow classmates and how to work together as a team.  Special thanks to this family who welcomed us to their farm and showed us a bit about what it’s like to live in a way that applies the methods we’re learning about in class.  Our help with the hugulkultur bed was a great trade for the experience.  But when we found out it was Joyce’s birthday, we were also happy to be able to give her a gift that will keep on giving for a long time to come.