Sunday, August 3, 2014

They are the Champions - My Young Farming Champion school visit at Hamilton North

I had one of the most fantastic experiences of my life last week. Have you ever walked into a strange place, a place you’ve never been before, full of people you’ve never met, and yet everyone knows your name and is excited to see you?

Last week that happened to me, as soon as I stepped through the school yard gate on my visit to Hamilton North Public School (HNPS), in Newcastle, as their Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) Wool Young Farming Champion for the Archibull Prize.

It was surreal at first. Confronting. And then thrilling. And has had me on a high for all the days since.

As HNPS Archibull coordinator and teacher Mrs Trudy Ramsay explained to the students, I spend most of my year on a relatively remote sheep station and can go for months where the only three other people I see are my husband ST and his mum and dad. To suddenly walk among swarms of children yelling out, “It’s Bessie! She’s here! Bessie’s here! Did you see? Bessie is here!” is… crazy… unreal… exhilarating… and incredibly hard to explain.

A group of students walked me to the office and others came rushing over to introduce themselves and high-five me, hug me and tell me how excited they were to finally have me here. Me? Me! Their Young Farming Champion.

In the background, other students walked by singing ‘She is a champion’ to the tune of ‘We are the champions.” I feel like you probably think I’m making this up. I’m not. It was totally crazy ridiculous. One hundred and eighty primary school students, from the centre of Newcastle, were buzzing with the thrill of having a sheep farmer from Wilcannia visit their school, and the first morning bell hadn’t even rung yet!

The grins on their faces were intoxicating and this glee set the tone for my two amazing days at Hamilton North.

The Art4Agcirulture Young Farming Champion program involves several training and development workshops before we’re allowed to step foot into schools. Through these workshops I’d created a presentation on my life, Burragan, and the wool industry, and my first morning at HNPS was spent touring the classes - first grades 5 and 6, then 3 and 4, and then K, 1 and 2 – and sharing my presentation with the students. This was well received and I ran out of time with each class to answer all their questions. They were enthralled and exceptionally interested in my stories of farming, sheep, and everything to do with how wool makes it from farm to fashion and beyond.

The students had so many questions! They wanted to know everything

Where do the sheep sleep? Do you have to wash them? What kind of position are they in when they’re sleeping? What kind of things are there that can hurt them? Do you have to protect them? Would a ram scare away something that was going to hurt them? How much grass do they eat each day? How much water do they drink each day? Do any of them ever die? Do you have to give them medicine? Do you live near a vet? How do you get water out there? Do they like being shorn? Do you name them? What other animals do you have? Have you ever fallen off your motorbike? How long have you been riding a motorbike for?

Where did your very first sheep come from? Do you ever have to sell any sheep? Can you buy sheep and how do you do that? How do you get them into the shearing shed? How long does it take to shear a sheep? How exactly do you shear a sheep? Does it hurt them? Have you ever shorn a sheep? What’s your favourite animal on the farm? Do the sheep live in families? How many sheep did you say you have again? Wow!

Some questions were easier to answer than others.

The HNPS teachers were equally warm and welcoming, also asking lots of questions, praising my presentation, and hosting a special (and totally delicious) lunch for me in the staff room.

I then accompanied Mrs Ramsay to the school Environment Club meeting. I was exceptionally impressed that the students at HNPS were so environmentally aware. They have “Bin Free Tuesday” where everyone is encouraged to bring food that isn’t pre-packaged, so the bins shouldn’t need to be used on a Tuesday. There are rubbish monitors, bin monitors, worm farm monitors, compost heap monitors, and even chook monitors! Each of these people has to report in at the meeting to discuss the progress of their area or raise any issues. They graph all their results and brainstorm ways to improve things… including the energy usage of the whole school!

HNPS is on a tiny parcel of land, with a very small student catchment area, and it is only a few kilometres from the city centre. Principal Kelly Deakin took me on a school tour. Within this urbanised environment the students and teachers have created a gorgeous oasis, with a real focus on sustainability and community.

As well as a tadpole pond and some gorgeous laying hens who free range through the school grounds (and sometimes into the classes!) after lunch time, the students also grow fruit and vegetables. These are often sold to the local community on market garden days, though sometimes they have cook up days at school too. HNPS is particularly proud of its raspberry patch, its homemade lemonade and is worm-water liquid fertiliser. The latter obviously not used as food so much as for growing food.

After lunch and a tour, I joined the all school assembly where students took the opportunity to ask me more questions that they’d thought of after my classroom presentations. Again, we ran out of time! They wanted to discuss every little detail of farm life and growing wool… such a huge topic to fit into just a few days!

For the rest of the afternoon and the next day I spent time with Mrs Ramsay and five fabulous grade four students who make up the HNPS Archibull Blog Editorial Team: Mable, Hayley, Ava, Bella and Ava. The girls picked my brain for industry knowledge, taking down notes for their compulsory blog topics and discussing more in-depth topics such as different breeds of sheep, a year in the life of a sheep at Burragan and the various properties of wool. Given their interest in the environment, the Editorial Team was particularly delighted to hear that wool is biodegradable.

These girls blew my mind! They were so enthusiastic, attentive and eager to learn. Their grasp of all the concepts we discussed was incredible, as were their technology skills! They each had laptops, typed up their notes, emailed them to Mrs Ramsay and then updated their Archibull Blog right in front of me. It wasn’t that long ago that I finished school, and given that I’m not around children often probably shelters me, but to see these nine and ten year olds use this technology so innately stunned me. Anyone my age who’s had to talk their mother/father through sending an email, over the phone, will understand!

Unfortunately the students actually had to do real school as well, and learn about things other than wool, so my time was up. The school captain and vice-captain presented me with a box of handmade (by one of the student’s dad’s, who owns a restaurant) chocolate truffles before leading their Archibull statue through a line-up of all the students clapping, and I was instructed to follow the parade as the guest of honour! It was so incredibly rock-star, I was stunned. And stoked.

Check out the photos on the HNPS Facebook page:

Art4Agricultre National Program Director Lynne Strong, and my sponsor Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), received very excited phone calls from me that day, thanking them for the amazing opportunity. I’ve had many genuinely fantastic moments in my life, but aside from meeting and marrying my gorgeous farmer ST, visiting Hamilton North Public School has been one of the very best.

It’s so easy for farmers, especially ones so far removed from cities, consumers and even the rest of the supply chain process, to fall into the habit of feeling unappreciated. My two days at Hamilton North proved the exact opposite. We are so genuinely welcomed, loved and appreciated. Consumers really are interested in hearing our stories and understanding why producing food and fibre is such a vital part of all their lives. I wish all farmers had the opportunity to experience this the way I did.

There are so many people involved in this program who all deserve huge thanks for the tireless work they put into making these special moments happen. My sponsor AWI – and all the other sponsors of the YFCs – need to know how important its financial support is, how much I value it, how their backing has given me one of the most fantastic experiences of my life.

AWI has gone above and beyond in its support of my journey with Hamilton North. Before my visit, Mrs Ramsay mentioned to me that the students would love to visit my farm, but it was simply too far away. I asked AWI if they knew of any wool growers closer to Newcastle who might be willing to host a farm visit. Their response blew me away; AWI went one step further and just a week after my school visit, they took some sheep and a shearer to Hamilton North for a shearing demonstration! Check out HNPS’s blog here to take a look: Hamilton North Archibull Blog

The feedback I’ve heard from the teachers has been outstanding. And if the children’s reaction to being able to touch and feel the wool that I took along to the school is any indication, then I can imagine they would have been absolutely wild with thrill to have real rams and ewes in their classrooms!

To everyone at AWI, thank you, thank you. You have genuinely touched the lives of all the children at Hamilton North, and without a doubt, made my world a brighter one too. The high I’ve experienced through this program is addictive and I hope you’ll let me continue to be involved in future.

To Hamilton North PS, thank you for having me. I loved every second of my visit and I can’t wait to see what you come up with for your Archibull Prize artwork. Good Luck! You’re all already winners. As am I.


  1. Congratulations Bess, amazing work! Love your enthusiasm, you are the perfect person to be representing the farming community x

    1. Oh thank you so much Jane! I'm loving my role, but I really wish every other person our community could get a taste of the appreciation too! x

  2. That is awesome! My dad has been 'show n tell' at my kids and my sister's kids city schools and the children just LOVED it. He brought in saddles, shoeing gear and pictures of the horses, cows and crops. They even loved things like his riding boots and spurs - and my goodness, when we took them outside for a whip cracking demonstration the kids nearly lost it they were so excited! I'm pretty sure my Dad felt like a bit of a rock star too :) I'm sure both you and the kids got a lot out of your presentation - so great to see Agriculture being presented in an interesting, exciting and accessible way! I really enjoy your blog and I can just feel your excitement through your words - it's fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing your stories!

  3. Brilliant Bess! Well done. I have just returned from a school camp where the country kids went to the city. Although Adelaide is nothing new for any of the kids in Orroroo Area School, the activity schedule that the teachers had arranged for four days had them buzzing. Cultural activities with Eddie from Torres Strait Island to an Adelaide Oval tour, aquatic centre swimming and slides and diving boards. Monarto Zoo and shovelling fresh bark chips into the lionesses night enclosure for Wally (while the magnificent carnivores looked on with wistful (hungry?) expressions). Add bowling, laser skirmish and rock climbing. To be a part of it was good for the soul, children's enthusiasm is infectious and all adults can use a dose of that! Sounds like you found just what you needed.

  4. So glad Newcastle gave you a warm welcome! I'm a new Novacastrian after migrating from Ameeica to Australia this April. I've been following your blog from the beginning and love your insights into Aussie life on the station.