Monday, February 24, 2014

"Moss Person:" SNRAS alum helps lead Calypso Farm and Ecology Center

Susan Willsrud, farm director at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, helps hundreds of people put homegrown vegetables on their plates and makes sure children gain practical gardening experience in their school yards.

Growing up in Ventura, Calif., Willsrud earned pocket money by selling avocados from a wagon; in her teen years she marketed the fruit to restaurants. After studying botany and zoology at the University of California Davis, she came to the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she earned a master’s degree in natural resources management with an emphasis on plant ecology.

Susan Willsrud beams with happiness at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center. (Photo by Gerrit Vyn)
It was the Long Term Ecological Research center at UAF that attracted Willsrud. "Everyone was so welcoming," she said.

She studied moss at the Bonanza Creek LTER. "I wanted to do something useful to leave behind, something to do with plant ecology and botany and something that others would be the least likely to do," she said. Botanist Leslie Viereck gave her two options: willows or mosses. "I picked mosses because I didn't know anything about them."

Soon she was labeled "the moss person," which she found amusing.

The SNRAS professors set an example for living a balanced life, Willsrud said. "I learned about how to integrate music, art and exercise with my college studies. I saw that the professors appreciated things beyond the university."

As a student Willsrud was already thinking about founding an educational farm. To help prepare, she and husband Tom Zimmer worked on farms in California and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The couple bought land outside Ester in 1999.

"I use my studies all the time," Willsrud said. "As a farmer, ecological decisions have to be made on how to care for the soil and nurture the farm ecosystem."

When she and Zimmer established the farm they decided to stay true to their mission: to encourage local food production and environmental awareness through hands-on education in natural and farming ecosystems.

For Willsrud, this career proved the perfect match between food and people. ”We grow our own food and integrate with and are involved with and cooperate with all kinds of people of all ages,” she said. “We feel the educational aspects are as important as food production.”

On three acres Calypso grows vegetables, herbs, flowers, dairy goats, chickens and Shetland sheep. Calypso operates a community shared agriculture program in which members buy a summer’s worth of produce and get a share each week.

Calypso is in its third year of a farmer training program and is now a partner with the Folk School, teaching blacksmithing and spinning.

At six schools, Calypso orchestrates gardens that are tended by over 100 students. Produce is sold to the school program’s CSA members and a portion of the food is donated to Stone Soup CafĂ© and the Fairbanks Community Food Bank.

Willsrud is passionate about food justice. She wants to share her message of fresh food with people who might not have opportunities to purchase it, specifically those who are poor or lacking in nutrition education. Calypso was one of the first farms to take food stamps directly.

The past 13 years have seen a shift in consciousness about local food, Willsrud said, but she is concerned that it may have become available mainly to people of privilege. “People who rush to us have advantages already,” she said. She firmly believes it is well worth her time to make the extra effort to reach people who aren’t wealthy. How will she do it? “With creativity, patience, understanding and reaching out.”

One key to Calypso’s success has been the involvement of many minds, both from staff and hundreds of volunteers. “We’ve been doing everything so far with a collaborative mindset,” Willsrud said. “It keeps the farm healthy.”

Willsrud enjoys spending time with her two teenage daughters, cross-country skiing and fiber art. She is fascinated with spinning wool from her sheep, dying the yarn and knitting.

“We have a good quality of life,” Willsrud summed up. “I’m pretty content.”

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