By carefully choosing land in a microclimate, Tom and
Susan have managed to do wonders with a short, temperamental
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 home-grown food.
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 around Fairbanks.
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
“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 outbuildings.
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
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
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
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
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
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,