Piling out of the school bus, kids race over to greet young farmer Jesse Clarke, who smiles standing beside a row of raised garden beds overflowing with winter crops of carrot and broccoli and beetroot and radish, turnips and cabbage. Today is harvest day for these future farmers at the Phoenix Park Farm, near Maitland. However, there are a few odd farm jobs that need doing, first.
"These are the jobs we've just got to do before we get to the really fun part," Clarke says from beneath his tattered wide-brimmed hat.
The kids know exactly what needs to be done; they were here last week, and the week before that, and the week before that. Today has been a long time coming. They race off in supervised groups to tend to the trees they planted a few weeks ago, to take temperature and rainfall measurements, and to feed the chickens, collect their eggs, and say hello to their friendly neighbours, the goats. Earlier this morning, Clarke was busy bringing up buckets of mud from the banks of the nearby river to set up beside one of the wooden picnic tables which are set out around the raised garden beds.
"Today, we're going to learn about river systems and soil erosion," Clarke says, hauling over the last bucket and placing it next to the table.
The school group consists of eager year 5 students from Ashtonfield Public School. They come to Phoenix Park Farm once a week to take part in the Growing Future Farmers school program, developed by Clarke, a former teacher, in partnership with his tech-minded brother-in-law, Josh Hughes. Together, the pair have developed a school learning program that brings together the science, technology and even art of modern farming and agriculture. Kids learn about the soil, how plants grow, and why trees are important. They learn about taking care of the animals on the farm, including the frogs and the bugs and the insects too. And they learn about nurturing their native habitat.
"There's a real emphasis on learning by doing through hands-on, interactive lessons that use technology to actually show kids how a farm or an ecosystem works, and why it's important to know this stuff," Clarke explains.
A recent class Clarke taught, with the help of Hughes, featured students becoming techo-botanists for the day. The pupils were instructed to hunt for leaves of all shapes and sizes and bring them back to inspect with a jeweller's lens, magnifying glass and iPad.
"I got them to look at the patterns in the leaves, and see how they were similar to the branches of a tree. We took some close-up photos with an iPad and then drew on them to really highlight the patterns using an app called Sketcher School," Clarke says.
"So, then a science experiment becomes a mini art project. Then we talk about arteries and veins, and river systems, and how they all look similar to each other. Once the kids learn to see the patterns, like these, they see how they get replicated in nature everywhere."
Clarke is teaching kids to learn from the ground up. Miss Valerie Frizzle and the students of the Magic School Bus would love it.
"The kids are so excited when they come out here, and the time just flies," says Clarke, lifting the last of the mud buckets up over the picnic table and pouring its contents out on to it. We're going to build a model river system to show what happens to the landscape when it rains."
There's a real emphasis on learning by doing through hands-on, interactive lessons that use technology to actually show kids how a farm or an ecosystem works, and why it's important to know this stuff.Jesse Clarke
The top of the picnic table can barely be seen through thick piles of mud stacked up all over it. Clarke divides the mud in two, down the length of the table. He asks the kids to find sticks and leaves and grass and weeds to add to one pile while the other side is left intentionally bare; just mud. The students keenly watch as Clarke picks up two watering cans and pours them over the two divided mud piles.
"Look!" Clarke exclaims. "You can actually see the rivers and streams and billabongs being formed on the table. See that little eddy here, and over there looks like a lake is forming. See how the water's moving pretty fast here, while there's sediment building up over there. Look, can you see?," Clarke asks his future farmers.
The kids talk and shout and point, their eyes staring excitedly at the water moving and shaping this micro-landscape they helped make. Next, Clarke pours water from the watering can over the bare side of the mud pile, the one with no foliage or vegetation. The pile collapses into sludge, of course, eroding into aimless muddy streams that run off the sides of the table and drain out on to the ground.
"Wow, I didn't expect that," says one of the students. "The one with the trees and grass looks way better..."
The experiment is a big success and the results are in. All the kids confirm with resounding consensus that we need grass and trees and even weeds to help the soil stay in shape, so that when it rains, the landscape doesn't collapse and erode away.
"OK, who's hungry?," asks Clarke. "Let's harvest some food!"
Yelling with excitement, the students race across to the garden beds teeming with the winter crops they've been nurturing and tending to during their Growing Future Farmers lessons. Clarke instructs them to grasp the bunches and slowly pull them out. Out of the earth come bright orange carrots and vivid purple beetroot, white radish and cute baby turnips. All as fresh as it gets.
A chorus of delicious delight sounds from these newly christened student farmers, now reaping their rewards after weeks of learning and doing on the farm: "So delicious. Amazing! Woah! These carrots taste so much better than the shops!"
"There's lots of fun to be found on the farm. You can see it on their faces, they just love it," Clarke says, smiling at their job well done.