Calypso Farm growing gardeners this summer

Photo courtesy of Calypso Farm Randy Smith Middle School students enjoy the harvest at their school garden in summer of 2012.
Photo courtesy of Calypso Farm
Randy Smith Middle School students enjoy the harvest at their school garden in summer of 2012.

Nancy Tarnai

After a decade of teaching the joy of gardening to young people Calypso Farm and Ecology Center continues to make the point that when it comes to growing food children learn best by doing.

Calypso has worked with hundreds of young farmers at school gardens since 2003. The program began at what was then Howard Luke School (now Effie Kokrine Charter School) and currently there are gardens at Chinook Montessori Charter School, Hunter Elementary, Pearl Creek Elementary, Randy Smith Middle School, University Park Elementary and Woodriver Elementary.

Sarah Furman, Calypso’s school garden coordinator, said, “Our mission is to encourage local food production through hands-on education. We actively promote local food in areas that might be considered food deserts.”

With school gardens Calypso takes the goal of food access and puts it in the hands of teens, who get to play a direct role in their community. “They are doing something very tangible,” Furman said. “It makes them a catalyst for change.”

Calypso provides each school with a garden educator who guides the youths through planning, planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. There are lessons in soil preparation and composting. A new twist last summer was meal preparation in the gardens. Using camp stoves, the gardeners helped culinary students prepare vegetable dishes and then consumed them. Snacking on fresh veggies has always been on the agenda, but cooking stir fry or spinach pasta added a fun new element. “Some of the students went home and made that same food for their families,” Furman said. “That made me really happy.”

To improve the program, Calypso staff concentrated for two weeks over the winter on nothing but preparing a strategic plan for school gardens. “We honed in on what we want to do, came up with goals and changed the structure,” Furman said.

The new age range is 11 to 14 and the focus will move from job training to educational aspects of food production. “The students will understand local foods, food systems and gain the skills to be part of the system and become the change we want to see in our community,” Furman said. Calypso established tasks that the students will rotate through: irrigator, weed watcher, time keeper, tool caretaker, harvest leader, farm stand workers, customer tracker and someone to create a “question for the day.”

The program fee for each five-week session is $300, with scholarships available. Registration is now offered through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions. “We like to work with community organizations to help facilitate the work they do best,” said Michelle Bartlett, director of Summer Sessions.

Not only do the students who enroll in the summer program learn from the experience, but classrooms visit the gardens in early fall to learn about producing food and the science of agriculture. Calypso sells a guidebook, Living Classroom Manual, to help teachers use food production as a learning tool.

Some of the schools have harvest celebrations, such as potato festivals or veggie-centered meals to share with the community.

All the schools have farm stands, selling fresh produce to neighbors and supporters throughout the summer. They also operate community supported agriculture models, providing shares of the gardens’ bounty to up-front investors. These help teach the students business practices and customer service, as well as get locally grown food into the hands of Fairbanksans.

Furman said the farm stands always sell out. They are held on different days depending on the school from 4 to 6 p.m. “By 4 the lines are forming,” Furman said. It helps that Calypso doubles the value of WIC vouchers (food assistance for pregnant women and moms of young children).

Photo courtesy of Calypso Farm Student gardener James Archuleta weeds a school garden last summer.
Photo courtesy of Calypso Farm
Student gardener James Archuleta weeds a school garden last summer.

The school gardens are made possible by a grant from the Alaska Legislature. Calypso is not the only school garden initiative in the state, but it is the largest. Staff members get calls from around the state seeking advice and plan to create a how-to guide for other communities.

Gardens at the Fairbanks schools produce a full range of vegetables, herbs and flowers. Some have perennials like rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries and chives. Pumpkins have even been grown at some of the schools. Woodriver neighbors need to know that their garden will be planted in cover crops only this year to improve the soil.

Sometimes it’s the small things that make the difference. For Furman just seeing a teen snack on carrots instead of chips is proof that the program is working. “My dream is the youths we work with will gain the confidence to change the food system,” she said. “It might not happen this year or next but if we plant the seed in them they might become part of the solution. And I hope they have fun doing it.”




Contact information:

UAF Summer Sessions

Calypso Farm and Ecology Center

Sarah Furman 451-0691 or

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at