“You’re farming in Alaska?! What can you possibly grow there?” This was a common response when I told people I was moving to Alaska to be an AmeriCorps VISTA at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in Ester, Alaska. To be honest, I myself wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I arrived in April, the ground was still covered in ice, the fields covered in snow. Three months later, I’ve discovered the shocking truth. In Alaska, a food revolution is brewing, and it’s led by 12 year olds.
Calypso Farm and Ecology Center (Calypso), founded in 2000, is a successful educational, working farm located near Fairbanks, Alaska. Calypso’s mission is to promote local agriculture and environmental awareness through hands-on education in natural and farming ecosystems. They provide educational programs for children and adults, reaching thousands of individuals annually. Programs include: farm field trips, farm and garden workshops, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farm apprenticeships and an extensive school garden network–the Schoolyard Garden Initiative (SGI). Through all of its programming, Calypso works to provide food and education access for low-income members of the community.
The SGI is an innovative community food program which creates organic school gardens that function as youth-operated food gardens during the summer months and experiential learning environments during the school year. This program responds to the need for locally grown food for the community, a gardening, nutrition and employment connection for youth and hands-on educational opportunities in the schools.
Fairbanks, Alaska is a community driven by the seasons. There can be snow on the ground from September through April. This climate makes food accessibility paramount. If you drive past the grocery store on a wintery evening it isn’t uncommon to see several taxis lined up in front, taking people without cars to get their groceries. If it seems difficult to get food within the state, it is even more difficult to get food to the state. Food often travels thousands of miles from the lower 48 to make it into the grocery aisles. It is said that if Alaska were to be cut off from the lower 48, Alaska’s supermarket food supply would be gone in three days.
The students in the SGI program have taken matters into their own hands. There are currently six schools in the program. These Student Gardeners (aged 12-18) plant, maintain, harvest and sell vegetables throughout the summer. They will also assist in teaching home gardening workshops to aspiring gardeners in the community and garden lessons to younger children in the fall. In exchange for their work, each Student Gardener takes home a weekly supply of vegetable and receives a monetary stipend at the end of the season. For most, this is their first job experience.
School Garden produce is available to the public through CSA’s and at weekly Farm Stands. Each garden offers a small number of CSA shares and operated a weekly Farm Stand on site. All produce is available for purchase with Food Stamps, WIC and Senior Coupons. Five of the six schools are within walking distance of low-income housing and two of the schools are federally recognized as Title I Schools (serving low-income students).
The Student Gardeners aren’t just farmers in training. They are agents of positive change, cultivating a new food culture. With pitchforks in hand, they shout “I love kohlrabi!” from the rooftops. They prefer vermiculture to video games. They don’t just finish their vegetables, they grow them. This is farming in Alaska.