harvest: By carefully choosing land in
a microclimate, Tom and Susan have managed to do
wonders with a short, temperamental growing season.
Susan Willsrud and Tom
Zimmer recognized growing interest among members of their
community for locally produced foods. They felt they could
tap that demand — and help it flower — by establishing
an organic vegetable, herb and flower operation. They hoped
to use it as a commercial venture as well as a way to educate
others about ecology, environmental issues and the value of
Willsrud is a California native. She has a master’s
degree in botany from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Zimmer grew up in a nomadic military family. He has a graduate
degree in soil science, and did a two-year stint in the Peace
Corps, as an agricultural extension agent in West Africa.
Zimmer accompanied Willsrud to Alaska in 1994, earning a living
as a soil analyst and surveyor while she attended the university.
They came to love Alaska, particularly the community in and
Willsrud and Zimmer kept a small garden beside the cabin
they rented while she was in school, which introduced them
to some of the demands of cultivating crops in Alaska’s
loess soils. Produced by the powerful rock-grinding action
of retreating and advancing glaciers, loess can be mineral-rich,
and it drains well. But in Fairbanks, as in much of the state,
permafrost lies just below the surface, so plants can’t
sink their roots very deep. To compensate, the couple learned
the arts of raised bed gardening and composting.
Their experience and ambitions pointed to farming, but they
had to learn more about how to farm on a commercial scale.
They returned to California, where they spent two years working
at a farm with a 700-member CSA project. When they returned
to Alaska in 1999, they spent months searching for the place
to launch their CSA. Zimmer’s surveying experience led
him to look up, along the forested ridges surrounding the
Tanana Valley, rather than on the valley floor where Fairbanks
“I was looking for a microclimate,” he said.
“I knew if I went up, and found a south-facing slope,
we might get better sunlight and milder temperatures.”
A piece of property 10 miles west of Fairbanks met most of
their requirements, including affordability. They had saved
$50,000 and were determined not to go into debt. The forested
parcel wasn’t for sale, but Zimmer and Willsrud, after
weeks spent monitoring temperatures and rainfall, made an
offer on the 30 acres. With the offer accepted, they set to
work clearing the land they’d need for cultivation and
constructing a home as well as a learning center and other
Community supported agriculture and education
Named for an orchid that blooms wild each spring in the
region’s forests, Calypso is home to a fast-growing
CSA operation. By its third season, the CSA provided a variety
of organic produce including herbs, vegetables and cut flowers
to 45 shareholders two times a week. The season lasts 16 to
20 weeks, depending on the timing of the first and last frosts.
All produce offered by the CSA is grown on 2.5 terraced acres
that Willsrud and Zimmer amended with an estimated eight to
10 tons of composted leaves, untreated lawn clippings, young
weeds, hay and manure from nearby horse stables, and coffee
grounds from local shops.
The CSA operation acts as a laboratory of sorts for Calypso’s
nonprofit Center for Environmental and Ecological Learning.
Zimmer and Willsrud routinely host field trips from local
elementary and high schools as well as college classes and
faculty. They encourage students to participate in cultivation,
planting, soil-building and water harvesting projects. Their
goal is to foster awareness — especially among young
people — of where their food comes from.
To that end, Zimmer and Willsrud also visit classrooms to
talk about gardening, farming and ecology. They launched a
program aimed at helping local high schools and elementary
schools establish on-site gardens.
Zimmer and Willsrud are alternately farmers, homesteaders,
builders, educators, grant writers and marketers. But once
the growing season swings into view each year, their roles
become more sharply defined because the CSA operation commands
most of their time and energy from March to October.
Zimmer is the farm manager, while Willsrud is the chief grower.
He makes sure the soil is properly worked and ready for planting,
manages composting and prepares volunteer and employee schedules.
She handles the collection and sowing of seeds, transplanting,
mulching and cultivation. Even with their considerable energies,
the CSA also depends on the help of two full-time VISTA (Volunteers
in Service to America) workers.
The couple also added an executive director’s position
to the ecological center.
Economics and Profitability
As practiced Alaskan homesteaders, Willsrud and Zimmer insist
they and their young daughters don’t need much money
or many off-farm luxuries. Still, things are easier now than
during their first two years on the property, when they generated
little income and lived on savings.
With their land and home paid for, they aim now to generate
enough income for the CSA to support itself — paying
for seeds and supplies as well as their salaries from March
to October and that of at least another full-time CSA employee.
Their goal for the ecology center is economic sustainability
as well, with enough income to pay their salaries as educators
and administrators during the months when the CSA operation
is dormant, and to support other staff, as well as efforts
like their satellite gardens at area schools.
Much of that activity is financed now through grants, and
both expect the center will continue to seek them. A revolving
five-year grant brings in $11,000 each year from an Alaskan
foundation, and they have also secured other grants totaling
$40,000 from agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2004, CSA subscribers could choose one of two levels of
participation; a small share (for at least two adults) for
$350, or a large share (for four or more adults) for $450.
Their current 45 shareholders generate an annual CSA income
of about $16,500. If their projections of 100 shareholders
by 2008 are met — and that seems likely with a waiting
list already numbering 80 — the CSA may then generate
closer to $40,000 annually. The ecology center, with its mix
of individual annual memberships, annual fund-raisers, and
grants — along with income from workshops the couple
conducts — takes in roughly $60,000 annually.
Willsrud and Zimmer admit that their 30 acres might better
have been left undisturbed and forested. They also make a
strong case that their activities haven’t drastically
disturbed or irrevocably altered the landscape, the microclimate
or the habitat. They took care to use all the trees, mostly
third-growth birch and aspen, as lumber. They replaced the
leaf litter and other biomass that would have been crushed
under the tracks of the earth-moving equipment brought in
to terrace their 2.5 acres of cultivated land.
They’re happy that their 30 acres won’t soon
be clear-cut, as it was at least twice in the past century.
“Trees grow very slowly around here,” Zimmer notes,
“especially on the 10 acres we’ve got that tilt
north. There’s permafrost year-round up there, and the
trees are only about 10 feet tall after the last cutting 35
or 40 years ago.”
Slow-growth patterns mean soil stays bare a long time when
the trees are removed, exposing it to wind and water erosion.
Calypso’s acres are protected from those processes by
the forested acres the couple have left undisturbed, and by
their improvements to the land they cultivate.
Rather than drilling an expensive and potentially unreliable
well, the couple instead chose to collect rainwater runoff,
establishing troughs and trenches leading to a storage pond.
They also collect rainwater from rooftops on each building,
in barrels. The barrels are fitted with spigots, and hoses
retired from the local volunteer fire department link them
to the storage pond. Zimmer and Willsrud make their property
available for firefighter training exercises, which often
include tanker trucks full of water. The tankers are usually
empty when the exercises are complete, and the water flows
into Calypso’s collection system.
While they have altered the run-off pattern on their slope
by diverting and capturing rainfall, they compensate by retaining
only as much as the center needs. Zimmer is reassured by the
improvement their composting efforts have made in the water-retention
qualities of the soil in their terraced beds.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
With a CSA and education center, Willsrud and Zimmer say
community comes to them. “There’s always somebody
coming by to see if we’ve got produce for sale, to see
what the ecology center’s all about, or just to visit
and help out any way they can,” Willsrud says. “It’s
a busy place.”
Work on the CSA project is all consuming for about four months
each year, the couple says, though enjoyable. For another
three months on either side they work lots of hours on both
the CSA and the education activities associated with the ecology
center. That means hosting field trips, guest teaching appearances
at local schools, managing garden projects at the schools,
and conducting on-site workshops and field days.
Each year, the family takes off for California in the coldest
and darkest two months of the Alaskan winter. Often, they
use the time to attend organic farming conferences.
“Pay attention and be patient,” says Zimmer
about establishing a produce operation in an unlikely place.
Microclimates are important, he said, and can be surprising.
“A general area can seem really forbidding, but there
are always little pockets where the temperatures and rainfall,
the amount of sunlight, the winds, can be a lot more forgiving.
Take the time to really monitor what happens and you might
strike gold. And if not, add more compost.”
Zimmer and Wilsrud believe they can build up to 100 shareholders.
They hope to reach that figure by 2008, then maintain it.
To grow larger would mean bringing on more employees and clearing
more land, when both Zimmer and Willsrud agree they want to
apply more of their time and energy to education.
“The CSA is wonderful for everything it does,”
says Willsrud. “It gets people here and makes money,
and lets people know it’s possible to grow lots of great
organic food right here in Alaska. We also enjoy teaching
people, especially kids, about ecology and knowing where their
food comes from and how it’s grown. We’re hoping
to strike a better balance so we can do more of that kind
of teaching but have a working, profitable CSA, too.”