Students from Carlingford West Public School find out what a farmer in the 21st century looks like

In 2019 when Zoe Stephens, science teacher at Carlingford West Public School, realised she had to teach her students about wool and sustainable fibres, she knew she needed to find an expert who could share real life experiences. So she trawled the internet looking for real-life farmers who may want to connect with her students. After plenty of maybes and half promises she came across Lynne Strong from Picture You in Agriculture and the Young Farming Champions, and Paddock Pen Pals was born.

Paddock Pen Pals beams Young Farming Champions from the paddock directly into classrooms using zoom, and this year six farmers joined the conversation at Carlingford West: Lucy Collingridge, Samantha Wan, Dione Howard, Katherine Bain, Danila Marini and Chloe Dutschke.

“Before we started I sat down with the Year 6 cohort [over 180 students] and asked them what they thought of when they pictured a farmer. You can imagine the comments – someone out in a field sucking on a bit of straw, big hat on and always a male. So then I said ‘next week you’ll actually get to chat with some farmers and they’re all young women’ and their mouths just hung open. It was amazing to have six young women to talk with us, particularly incredible because we are really breaking that stereotype of who is a farmer.”  Zoe says.

With 82% of careers in agriculture supporting farmers to produce food and fibre the stereotype is certainly changing.

All Young Farming Champions work in different parts of the wool industry: Chloe is a contract musterer, Lucy a biosecurity officer, Dione a veterinarian, Katherine a business analyst, Sam a wool broker and Danila a researcher, and all were paired with a separate Year 6 class for a half hour presentation.

“All our farmers had something different to offer and this broadened the students’ understanding of the industry beyond sheep growing wool. Our big question was how are our farming industries implementing sustainable practices and having a dedicated Young Farming Champion for each class meant the students got a very one-on-one conversation with these farmers and I think that gave them more connection with who they were talking with.” Zoe says

Big Question

“The kids were great,” Lucy says. “They had so many exciting questions and we had a great discussion about the sustainability of the wool industry with the kids who all knew about renewable resources and the unsustainable process to make man-made fibres.”

Sam showed the students a range of woollen products.

PPP Sam Refelction

Dione spoke about animal health

PPP Dione Student refelction

Danila described her research into virtual fences

Danila 2

Danila 1

There were lots of questions for Danila

Chloe amazed them with the size of her property (“She had 18,000 sheep,” was one student’s comment. “I thought there would be only around 20 and they would be kept in a big red barn with a little fence!”)

Katherine Bain 1

Katherine “introduced them to her sheepdog Zip and got to show them a video of sheep being moved in the yards which caused a lot of excitement!”

“One of my favourite quotes from the students, which I heard over and over again, was ‘she answered my questions. Afterwards I asked them to reflect and write down what they had learnt and I love the fact not one of them were the same. Everyone has taken away their own understanding from their own perspective.”  Zoe says. 

The students have now created a wool wall in their classroom

Wool Wall

The students will use their new-found perspectives as they create a project around waterway sustainability, and have strengthened their connection with their Young Farming Champions by promising to share with them the final products. Paddock Pen Pals has been an exceptionally effective way of connecting with real-life farmers and diving deep into the Australian wool industry. It will also hold the students in good stead as they tackle the 2020 Kreative Koala challenge.

For the Young Farming Champions, Paddock Pen Pals was another way to give back to the wool industry.

“I grew up only half an hour from Carlingford West – these students were me – and I had no idea about wool at their age,” Sam says. “I was excited to talk to the next generation of wool consumers about the benefits of wool and wool’s importance in Australia and of the career opportunities available. I even got a message from AWTA (the largest wool testing organisation) managing director, Michael Jackson, reminding me he went to Carlingford West, and then had a successful career in the wool industry!”

For Zoe, this was the second year she had participated in Paddock Pen Pals and although she feels she now has a strong understanding of the world of wool,

“there is no comparison between me standing up in front of the students and telling them what I know about wool to having an actual farmer, standing in a field, talk with them.”

For the students, they have had their queries answered by an expert and they now know what a farmer looks like.



Introducing the highly successful Paddock Pen Pals


Picture You in Agriculture (PYiA) in association with Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) has launched the new school-based program to connect students to Australian farmers and agriculture. Called Paddock Pen Pals the program utilises online audio and web conferencing programs to beam Young Farming Champions (YFC) directly into the classroom.

The concept has been used successfully in the past to take the schoolroom to the paddock, such as when YFC Emma Ayliffe used the technique with Parramatta Public School for The Archibull Prize. For teacher Esra Smerdon the experience brought a real-world connection to the students. “When we skyped with Emma she was able to show us how they used moisture probes to identify whether or not they needed to water and how they used that data to inform them,” she said. Read more about Emma’s interaction with Parramatta Public School here.

The Paddock Pen Pals program was launched recently at Sydney’s Carlingford West Public School where 300 Year 6 students gained insights into sheep and the wool supply chain from YFCs Danila Marini, Dione Howard, Sam Wan and Chloe Dutschke.

Carlingford West is a large inner-west primary school with a high percentage of English-second-language students.

“Many of my students have little time outside and have never visited a farm,” teacher Zoe Stephens said. “In order to make their learning relevant, I wanted to connect them to real farmers to share what they have learnt and see what real farms are actually doing in Australia.”

The first YFC to talk to the students via the big screen was CSIRO Sheep Researcher Dr Danila Marini who discussed animal wellbeing, virtual fencing and technology.

Danila Marini

Dr Danila Marini, UNE post-doctoral student, is researching the welfare implications of virtual fencing on sheep.

“The students were absolutely fascinated by the process of using digital technology like those new collars Danila is a part of, creating virtual fences,” Zoe said.

Carlingford West Public School with Dione Howard 2

The following day the students were introduced to Riverina Local Land Services District Veterinarian Dione Howard and again both students and teacher were enthralled.

“I think Dione may have inspired some students to become future vets,” Zoe said. “The medical equipment she showed the students was amazing; especially as they could identify that we use the same equipment for humans.”

Wool Technical Coordinator at Elders National Wool Selling Centre in Melbourne Sam Wan was the third YFC to Google Hangout with the students and she had an immediate connection, being herself a city-kid.

Sam Wan Carlingford West (5).jpg

“The students were amazed that someone like them, a city kid from another country, could become involved in the wool trade,” Zoe said.

The final YFC was Sheep Musterer Chloe Dutschke who beamed into the school direct from the vast plains of Hay, and the students were fascinated by the open spaces and huge areas.


One student commented:

“I always thought the sheep were just in a green little paddock.”

Paddock Pen Pals has given the students an opportunity to talk to real farmers about their daily life and to ask real-world questions about what they produce and how they work the land. In response the students are now making short movie-style presentations to share with their YFCs.

This pilot of Paddock Pen Pals at Carlingford West has been an immediate success with Zoe recommending the program to fellow teachers and congratulating all PYiA people involved:

“I want to extend a huge thank you to Lynne (Strong) and the wonderful farmers. Every farmer brought a unique perspective to our students and opened windows into the world of agriculture that they had never experienced. Highlights from the students were the virtual fencing collars, vet equipment and caring for a flock, looking at how wool is marketed and sold and viewing the great open spaces of Hay. Thank you for your time, enthusiasm and energy. When I asked the students to raise their hand if they enjoyed meeting a farmer every hand when up! That just doesn’t happen with Year 6.”

Thank you Zoe and Carlingford West Public School students our Young Farming Champions declared you were the highlight of their week


The first Saturday on the Royal Easter Show provided the perfect opportunity for Paddock Pen Pals teacher Zoe Stephens from Carlingford West Public School and YFC Sam Wan and Dione Howard to meet face to face in the Sheep Pavilion.

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