Looking out from underneath his tattered white wide-brimmed hat, Jesse Clarke smiles.
"As a teacher I would do long hours; 10 hours was fairly normal but at the end of it I was just wrecked. I'd get home exhausted," Clarke explains. "Now, I'll happily work 12 hours on the farm, from sunrise to sunset. When I'm finished, I'm still tired, for sure, but it's a different type of tired. I feel good ... I feel relaxed."
Jesse Clarke is a young farmer from Maitland whose mind bursts with ideas while his hands are busy digging in the dirt. A former science teacher, Clarke left the teaching profession to work with his father, Peter, and become a farmer.
Clarke has long-term plans to put the rich alluvial river soils of his family's farmland at Phoenix Park, just over the bridge from Morpeth, to more diversified use beyond the ritual victuals of lucerne and turf. Phoenix Park has a long history with growing expansive swathes of this verdantly perennial legume, but it also has a history for growing other crops too. Crops like maize, onions, potatoes, cabbages, beetroot and, of course, Maitland's famous pumpkins. Food, basically.
"I quit teaching and took over the farm at the end of last year," Clarke explains. "I've always loved the farm and being outside, but only growing lucerne is not something I'm that interested in. Here, we have some of the best soils in the country for growing high quality food and everywhere you look it's lucerne and turf. It doesn't make any sense to me, especially when half the world is starving and we're still in the middle of a drought."
Economically speaking, when most farmers sell their produce as undifferentiated commodities into a large and anonymous national market - and, they've got bills to pay, same as anyone else - growing lucerne and turf makes a hell of a lot of sense, financially speaking. Both are a viable and reliable crop with a ready and waiting path to market, which can be sold at a reasonable price. Strangely, unlike food.
"I really want to make our farm more productive, in terms of the variety of food we grow," Clarke says, "and we can grow so much of it out here. I've planted these potatoes called Midnight Blue, which are actually a really deep purple colour, even when you cook them; you can roast them and they'll crisp up but stay soft and fluffy on the inside."
The hardest part - as any farmer knows - is selling what you grow. Clarke finds that the best way to get his potatoes and pumpkins off the farm and on to local people's plates is through Maitland's own Earth Markets at the Levee (first and third Thursday of each month), and at the Phoenix Park Farm gate on alternate Thursday's between 3pm and 6pm (check Facebook.com/PhoenixParkFarm first).
Clarke also has plans to put on workshops and educational farm days for school kids and anyone else who might be interested in learning about farming food.