Work swapped for share of harvest at experimental farm

Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

ESTER - An experiment in community agriculture is taking shape in a patch of woods along the Old Nenana Highway. Susan Willsrud and Tom Zimmer, founders of Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, say their project will give people a chance to work on the farm in exchange for a share of the harvest.

The concept is called "community shared agriculture." There are more than 1,000 such farms in the Lower 48, they say.

"The key is to connect people to food sources," Zimmer said, "so they can see how it's grown and participate in it."

Clearing has begun at the site to prepare for a substantial vegetable garden next year.

The Calypso farm grew out of grants from the Alaska Conservation Foundation, which provided $11,000 last year and has allocated the same amount this year.

Calypso's mission is to encourage local food production and environmental awareness by educating people about natural and farming ecosystems, Willsrud said. She and Zimmer own the Ester property about 15 miles south of Fairbanks. They're leasing it to a nonprofit organization.

Calypso is beginning with the clearing of a three-quarter-acre field. It will be terraced, then planted in rye, field peas or fescue to prepare the soil for next year's garden. They'll also raise chickens and goats.

Zimmer and Willsrud hope to provide vegetables, goat's milk and eggs to 10 families beginning next year.

Calypso participants will help work the land and have a say in what is grown. The concept is not the same as a community garden, in which people rent a plot of ground. Nor is it a commune. Participants will share skills, ideas and labor, Willsrud said.

The farm's name is derived from a wild orchid that Willsrud and Zimmer like.

Zimmer has a master's degree in soil science from Utah State University and a bachelor's degree in geological engineering from Michigan Technological University. Willsrud has a master's in natural resource management from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a bachelor's degree in zoology and botany from the University of California at Davis.

They say they selected the Fairbanks area for their project because it has warm summers and a warm community feeling.

"I've been impressed and encouraged by all the skills and enthusiasm," Willsrud said, munching on homemade wheat bread while nursing 7-month-old daughter Elsa. "I'm happy at how many people said this was an idea whose time has come. The community wants it."

Zimmer worked with elementary school students this year, creating a science program allowing young people to explore, create and discuss agriculture.

"We just want kids to learn where food is coming from," Zimmer said. "We want kids to see a working farm."

Beyond the community farm, the pair hopes to add a seed bank, college courses, community workshops, agricultural research and a community barn.

"We want to be a resource center for gardeners, consumers and other farmers," Willsrud said.

Meanwhile, they face the challenges of finding money along with cultivating the soil.

The couple are living off savings they set aside for eight years, Zimmer said. They also have held fund-raisers and have several business sponsors for Calypso.

Americorps, a youth work program operated by Tanana Chiefs Conference, sent 10 workers to assist at the farm in April and May.

"We're forever indebted to them," Willsrud said.

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