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Food Security and Justice at Calypso Farm, Alaska

Food security and justice are priorities in Alaska, where the vast majority of purchased food is imported, food prices are high, and more than 11% of residents receive supplemental nutrition assistance (SNAP) benefits. Much of Alaska’s food security depends on long supply chains that can be disrupted by the increasing impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather and wildfire smoke. In response, Calypso Farm and Ecology Center is working to increase food security and justice through agricultural education programs and improving equitable access to local, nutritious food in Interior Alaska.

Reading Time | 9 minutes

Management Goals | Strengthen food security and justice in Interior Alaska

Audience | Farmers, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Extension, Farm advisors

Contact Info | Tom Zimmer –; Christie Shell –

Farm Area | Ester, AK

Funding | See funding section

An image of the farm, with rows of vegetables and flowering plants.
Calypso Farm in Ester, Alaska. Credit: Calypso Farm
Calypso Farm is a nonprofit farm and education center located near Fairbanks in Ester, Alaska. From Calypso’s origin, founders Susan Willsrud and Tom Zimmer centered their work around local food production and ecological education. The farm has been in operation since 1999, and produces over 500 vegetables, herbs, and cut flower varieties, textile wool from sheep, and honey from bees. The farm sells produce though Community-Shared Agriculture (CSA) shares and the Southside Community Farmers Market. Calypso also hosts a variety of educational opportunities including agricultural programs and classes ranging from gardening to homesteading, blacksmithing, and fiber arts. As the farm has grown, the team has made food justice, or the right to grow, sell, and eat healthy foods, a prominent focus.

Climate change affects access to food in Alaska

Food security occurs when communities have access to a constant source of enough nutritious and safe food to maintain active and healthy lifestyles. Because most of the food purchased in the state is imported, and communities must rely on long supply chains to receive food, Alaska is one of the most food insecure states in the nation. One in nine Alaskans struggle with hunger, a number that rises in rural and Alaska Native communities where supply chains are even longer and can be interrupted by extreme weather, wildfires, or pandemics. Climate change is likely to increase instances of extreme events that impact food production, distribution, and security. Supply-chain interruptions can have major consequences in Alaska, particularly for rural communities that rely heavily on imported food.

The team made food justice central to the Calypso mission when they recognized that individuals from certain neighborhoods and ethnic groups were not able to access Calypso's food products. Many individuals were prevented from accessing farmers market produce by of a lack of transportation or other socioeconomic factors. To other individuals, farmers market and CSA share prices presented a challenge. In response to these accessibility issues, Calypso Farm has worked to improve equitable access to local, nutritious food and agricultural knowledge in hopes of strengthening food security and justice in Interior Alaska.

Actions to address climate change impacts

Increasing Access to Local Food through Community-Shared Agriculture (CSA) and the Southside Farmers Market

Calypso Farm sells a portion of their produce through CSA shares. CSA allows customers to buy shares of a farm’s harvest in advance. CSA members pay for their share at the beginning of the growing season, generating revenue for farmers to buy seed and other resources before the season begins. Paying at the beginning of the season means that CSA members share in the risk of production, which allows farmers to focus on good land stewardship and growing high-quality food, rather than marketing.

The team at Calypso acknowledges that the upfront cost of a CSA share can be challenging for some community members with lower incomes. To make CSA shares more affordable, the farm offers installment payments, in which a share can be paid over the length of the growing season. They also offer pay-what-you-can discounts of up to 50% off the share price to any shareholder in need. Shareholders with higher incomes are also asked if they are willing to sponsor low-income CSA shares. As such, Calypso CSA shares have become more accessible for a more diverse group of shareholders.

A map of Fairbanks
The yellow shading on this map of Fairbanks, Alaska shows low-income census tract areas that are more than ½ mile from a grocery store and have more than 100 housing units without a vehicle. These factors lead to food insecurity. The star marks the location of the Southside Farmers Market, where Calypso Farm works to increase local access to healthy, nutritious food. Credit: USDA Economic Research Service.

Calypso Farm also sells produce at a local farmers market, where the team noticed a demographic disparity in customers able to access fresh, local, and nutritious food. While more affluent residents were able to drive to the farmers market, many residents from Fairbanks’ economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse Southside neighborhood lacked transportation, and thus, could not access the market. Southside Fairbanks qualifies as food insecure, with most residents living more than ½ mile from a grocery store and many lacking access to a vehicle.

In response, Calypso Farm formed the Southside Community Farmers Market (blue star on the map), a Tuesday evening market located in Southside Fairbanks. Southside community members head the market committee and work to meet community needs. The market accepts SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program), WIC (special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children), and Senior Farmers Market Coupons to accommodate more vulnerable populations. Through low-income CSA shares and the establishment of the Southside Community Farmers Market, Calypso Farm has made strides toward strengthening food security and justice in the Fairbanks area.

Agricultural Training Programs and Classes

Education is also central to the mission of Calypso Farm and Ecology Center. The farm provides an array of adult-oriented classes, including gardening, blacksmithing (taught by co-founder Tom Zimmer), textile classes that use wool from Calypso sheep, and crafting through a partnership with the local folk school. Farming, however, is at the center of Calypso's educational efforts. Tom Zimmer notes that one of the farm's enduring goals is to “grow more farmers,” because small, diverse farms increase the climate resilience of local agricultural production.

In Alaska, 43% of farms are on less than 10 acres, and more small farms are popping up every year. Alaska has the highest percentage of new and beginning farmers, and the highest percent increase of new farms. Alaskan farmers are also among the youngest, and almost 50% have fewer than 10 years of experience. Calypso helps to “grow” some of these beginning farmers through coordinating and implementing Farmer Training Programs, experiential education programs that provide the skills, inspiration, and experience necessary for participants to start their own farm or garden. These programs include short-term intensives (one- to two-week sessions), one- to two-month farmer training apprenticeships, and Indigenous agriculture programs. The programs are offered at an affordable price or in some cases, at no cost. By increasing affordable access to agricultural education, Calypso Farm helps to transfer agricultural knowledge from one generation to the next. This food economy localization helps to combat food insecurity, strengthen food justice, and increase the economic resilience of Interior Alaska.

Agricultural Training for Young Adults at Community Roots Farm

A group of young adults pull weeds and tend vegetables in the Community Roots garden.
The Community Roots Garden teaches youth how to plant and tend a garden, run a farm stand, cook, learn about food justice and security, and make goals and actions to strengthen neighborhood food security. Credit: Calypso Farm and Ecology Center

The team at Calypso recognizes youth as an important driver of change. As such, they developed Community Roots, a youth agricultural and leadership training program. The program takes place at the Hunter Elementary School Garden in south Fairbanks and sells produce at the Southside Community Farmers Market. The program teaches youth how to plant and tend a garden, run a farm stand, cook, learn about food justice and security, make goals, and take action to strengthen neighborhood food security. The program is very successful; one Community Roots graduate is serving as a youth liaison on Calypso’s Board of Directors and other graduates have taken roles as local garden managers.

Calypso facilitates other youth agricultural educational opportunities, including school field trips, summer camps, and a seasonal Farm School that introduces K-6 students to farming and gardening with hands-on learning. In addition, the team developed an at-home curriculum entitled People and Place that focuses on place-based education and Alaskan ecosystems for grades K-6.

Indigenous Agriculture Program

As an extension of the farmer training programs, Calypso has partnered with rural organizations and Tribes to support Indigenous-led farmer training programs that increase agricultural opportunities in villages and communities. Calypso Farm acts as a hub through which Indigenous leaders and learners can share agricultural, cultural, and ancestral knowledge with each other, strengthening food sovereignty and security in many Alaska Native communities.

Because improving soil health has emerged as an urgent need in several Indigenous communities, agricultural trainings include an opportunity to share soil health improvements and strategies. As an example, Calypso Farm and Eva Burk (Denaakk’e and Lower Tanana Athabascan and University of Alaska Fairbanks master’s candidate) have partnered with the villages of Nome, Cripple Creek, Golovin, Tyonek, Yakutat, Igiugig, and Nenana in an effort to analyze and address soil health issues in these communities. Teams are conducting nutrient and microbial soil analyses and identifying local sources of compost-building materials to avoid costly shipping of soil amendments. A 3-year soil health grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service provides funding for the project.

Eva Burk is also partnering with Calypso to promote local food production and combat food insecurity in Alaska Native communities. Burk is working to build community gardens and year-round biofuel and passive solar greenhouses in order to combat food insecurity in communities where subsistence resources are shifting due to climate change. She has initiated her project in Nenana, Alaska.

The Seed Garden—Improving Local Seed Stock for Climate Resilience

Recently, the Calypso team planted a seed garden—a garden where plants are grown for the production of seeds. The team designated a field for the garden, planting arugula, kale, bok choy, lettuce, beets, flowers, carrots, and squash for seed. Eventually, Calypso Farm hopes to store, sell, and contribute their seeds to a community seed library. Community seed banks and libraries can strengthen the resilience of local agricultural systems by improving access to crops adapted a rapidly changing Alaskan climate.

Challenges and opportunities

A group of young adults harvest carrots at the farm.
A group of young adults participate in Farm School, where they learn to grow and harvest vegetables. Credit: Calypso Farm and Ecology Center

Rather than any consistent impact related to climate change, the team has recorded increasing abnormalities in weather, ranging from very dry summers, to abnormally warm and wet winters, to changing snow patterns. The team has also noticed emerging insect issues, including an increase in root maggots. In response to these abnormalities, Calypso is focused on building overall resilience on the farm and throughout the agricultural community. “We are always hypothesizing and trying new things to prepare for whatever issue might come next,” Tom says.

Water catchments ponds provide critical irrigation during dry summers and water storage in flood-prone years. During a particularly dry summer, the farm utilized 85% of the water in the catchment ponds. In other years, the ponds are hardly used at all. Tom notes that monitoring water usage, installing drip irrigation, and building the soil’s moisture-holding capacity has helped the team to conserve a lot of water.

To reduce damage from extreme weather and lengthen the Interior’s extremely short growing season, the Calypso team starts their seeds indoors and utilizes two greenhouses in the cooler months. Soil health is also taken seriously. The sheep and goats on the farm provide manure for compost, which is supplemented with horse manure to replace missing nutrients. In addition, fields are routinely taken out of production, cover cropped, then grazed by the farm’s livestock to create green manure. “It’s a lot of hard work, but the soils are looking really healthy,” Tom notes.

If Tom could give one piece of advice to farmers hoping to incorporate food justice and security efforts in their own operations, it would be to “listen to community needs and involve them in every part of the farming process.” He emphasizes the significance of reciprocity between the community and the farm. “Without community,” he says, “the farm would just be plants.”


The farm has received a variety of grants including:

  • Calypso’s Farmer Training Programs are supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA): Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program which provides grants for education, mentoring, and technical assistance initiatives for beginning farmers or ranchers.
  • USDA NIFA Community Food Projects Grant is intended to unite partners from distinct parts of the food system and to foster understanding of national food security trends. Understanding that low-income individuals experience disproportionate access to healthy foods, projects should address food and nutrition insecurity, particularly among our nation’s most vulnerable populations.
  • USDA Agricultural Marketing Service: Farmer’s Market Promotion Grant funds projects that grow direct producer-to-consumer markets to increase access to and availability of locally and regionally produced agricultural products. The program supports developing, coordinating, expanding, and providing outreach, training, and technical assistance to farmers markets, farm stands, CSA programs, agritourism activities, online sales, or other direct market opportunities. A 25% match is required.
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS): Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) offers matching-funds to stimulate the development and adoption of innovative approaches and technologies for conservation on agricultural lands. Calypso received a CIG for a 3-year soil health initiative.
  • NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) provides agricultural producers with financial assistance and conservation planning services to help implement improvements on their land using what NRCS calls "conservation practices." Using these practices can lead to cleaner water and air, healthier soil, and better wildlife habitat, all while improving agricultural operations. Through EQIP, producers can voluntarily implement conservation practices, and NRCS co-invests in these practices with them.

Calypso Farm Instagram provides updates on Calypso Farm, crops, and educational programs. Their website is an excellent resource and includes information about specific programs and staff.

Agriculture in Alaska is a Hub webpage that discusses food production, climate change impacts, and agricultural resources for the state.

Adaptation Resources for Agriculture: Responding to Changes in Climate in Alaska is an adaptation workbook that reviews climate change effects on agriculture in Alaska and provides information to help producers adapt their operations.

Alaska Farmers Market Toolkit is a USDA-funded toolkit that provides information about business and financial planning, supporting greater food security at farmers markets, vendor management, and much more.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) - Alaska can provide information to producers on management actions and grants.

To see more Adaptation in Action Profiles, visit the Northwest Adaptation in Action page on the Hub website.