Monday, January 5, 2015

Calpyso Farm finds successful methods for farmer school

There’s a lot more to farming than putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow. And now there is farmer school to teach the complexities of becoming a proficient, all-around agriculturist.
Harvesting is one of the joys of attending farmer training.

Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in Ester has been offering its farmer training program for the past three summers. Christie Shell, Calypso’s assistant director, said even though the farm has long had an internship program, people would spend a summer working on the farm and when it was time to leave they didn’t have the skills to start their own farm.

“Our mission is encouraging farmers,” Shell said. “This program includes the students in the decision making. Now when they leave they say they are ready.”

“We’ve learned a lot,” said Susan Willsrud, Calypso’s farm director.

When the school was in the pilot stage in 2012, activities were loosely scheduled but with time Willsrud realized that the better the plan the smoother things run. “We’ve been on a learning curve,” she said. “We keep a pretty detailed calendar. It’s hard to fit it all in.”

From the first week of May to the end of September, every single day is mapped to a T. Students learn planting, weeding, harvesting, composting, blacksmithing, farm planning, working with animals, sewing, cooking, metalsmithing, woodworking and more.

Visiting instructors help teach the wide variety of lessons. Only five people are accepted each summer and Willsrud guides potential students through a rigorous application and interview process to make sure they are a good fit. “I encourage them to take their time and make a decision after thinking it over seriously,” she said. Students find Calypso through the website or outreach to universities and high schools.

The small size is beneficial because it allows some flexibility to tailor the program for each person depending on what their interests and passions are.

“We had to learn how to tailor it, yet give them breadth,” Willsrud said. “So far, so good. They find their strong area of interest. We hope they gain the confidence and base level of skills to start an economically viable small farm. While not everyone will start a farm, every single person comes out knowing how to grow their own food.”

Part of the process is each student creates his or her own farm plan. “Some are tangible and some are pretend farms based on a specific place,” Willsrud said.

This type of school is growing in popularity, but until a couple of years ago there were very few. At Calypso, students pay $3,000 tuition, which includes room and board. Students come from all over; one even came from Ghana, West Africa. “We get a range of people, experience and ages,” Willsrud said. “It makes it interesting.”

While some students have farm experience, some have never even visited a farm. During the interviews, Willsrud asks potential students what role farming will play in their future.

For now, Willsrud and Shell want to keep the school at its small size. “We want to keep improving it,” Willsrud said.

“And we want to meet the needs of the participants,” Shell said. Another goal is to attract a more diverse audience, including young farmers, military veterans and people from various socio-economic backgrounds.

Calypso volunteer Kaiyuh Cornberg, who will attend the training program next summer, said it appealed to her because she’s not a classroom learner. “I love being outside and I really want to grow food in Alaska,” she said. “This is an on-the-ground way to create change.”

An alumnus of the program from Colorado wrote, “The farmers training program has taught me the ins and outs of what it takes to run a farm and a CSA. It has been a phenomenal learning experience and I think it is one of the best choices I have made to come to beautiful Alaska for a summer. Farming at Calypso has solidified my passion for environmental education and opened many new doors into the world of human ecology.”

While the program is probably filled for 2015, Willsrud encouraged prospective students to study Calypso’s website if they are interested in attending in the future.

Contact information:
Facebook: Calypso Farm and Ecology Center

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