Seven-year-old Emma Tavo volunteered to be a carrot. She stood in front of 16 first-graders who sat crisscross applesauce on the barn floor, watching as farmer Lisa Kessel planted, watered and let her grow. The Moon Lake Elementary School student reached for the sky, fanning her fingers as Kessel collected imaginary seeds from her "flowers."
Ted and Lisa Kessel started the 19-acre Sweetfields Farm five years ago as a way to give their kids, T.J., 13, and Jessica, 11, an agricultural lifestyle. They also wanted to introduce the community to farm activities like mazes and U-picking, where visitors can pick their own organic produce right from the field.
"We saw a need for the community to have family fun events like they have up North. We wanted to provide that to the community down here as well," said Ted Kessel, 37. "We used to have to go to Georgia to find agricultural activities like this."
The couple hosts weekday field trips at the Masaryktown farm and open it to the public on weekends during the spring and fall. This season's sunflower maze, which sprouted from about 400,000 seeds, is in the shape of a female farmer cradling a chicken. In the fall, the Kessels construct a corn maze. They plot, draw up the plans, design and execute the maze themselves.
In addition to ambling through the maze, visitors can bring a picnic, take a hayride, fire a veggie cannon for a chance to win a prize, complete a digital scavenger hunt, navigate a Web maze, listen to a storyteller, purchase fresh squeezed lemonade and kettle corn, and enjoy wine on Sundays from Strongtower Winery.
On their May 10 field trip to Sweetfields Farm, 104 Moon Lake first-graders learned that pigs are smarter than dogs as they watched Peanut, Butter and Jelly, potbelly pigs, scale a ramp and leap over hurdles in a race. They answered questions about farm animals in order to navigate the 6-acre maze of sunflowers that stood taller than their teachers. They met Rosie the cow and her calf, along with pigs, chickens and goats. They learned that many "vegetables," like squash, zucchini, green beans, bell peppers and tomatoes are actually fruits because they have seeds in the center.
"They learn how the farming community works," teacher Nancy Dusseault said. "We're studying living and nonliving things and we're studying different kinds of animals, the birds and the mammals. We're learning about plants and the parts of plants, so I think this is just integrating everything."
Many young farm visitors get their first taste of agriculture at Sweetfields. Before her field trip to the farm last year, Skylar Kirkman, 6, didn't know where fruits and vegetables came from. On her second visit to the farm, she sat in the shade of sprawling oak trees, eating lunch and rattling off farm facts.
"I learned that (animals) reproduce and mammals have fur and plants come from the ground and they have roots and leaves make the food," Skylar said.
Though the farm has been going strong for five years, the Kessels aren't resting on their laurels. Lisa bought Ted a shirt that says "there is no off season" — a testament to the constant work and improvements that go into farming.
The newest addition is a 6,000-square-foot barn, which the Kessels designed and built themselves this past fall. The barn houses their prepicked produce and some equipment, and hosts wedding receptions and banquets.
The couple hasn't stopped learning either. One of the most important lessons has been adapting to setbacks.
"We've started to expect that we don't have all the control," said Lisa Kessel, 36.
Last year, the Kessels lost 80 percent of their harvest because of inclement weather. Using organic methods, they plant at times when they know pests won't be a problem and supplement with natural deterrents like spearmint and garlic.
When the bugs refuse to pack up their bags, Lisa Kessel says, "you're going to have to accept they won."
But, for the Kessels, battling the elements and toiling in the Florida sun pays off.
"When you pick corn right off the plant, you don't even have to cook it," Ted Kessel said. "It's so sweet."
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.