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Agricultural colleges booming as youngsters from town and country flock to farm jobs

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: August 27, 2014

Students from WIltshire College's Lackham campus at a ploughing match last year. Agricultural engineering lecturer John Dixon is pictured with Lewis Humphrey, Jonny Taylor, Josh Lake, Andii Pera, Daniel Smith and, driving the tractor, Kevin Powel PIcture: Clare Green

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Last week, the Daily Press reported the welcome news of a huge rise in the number of farmers in the past 12 months. Simon Copp looks at just what makes agriculture such an attractive career choice for today's youngsters

Farming students are virtually guaranteed a job, such is the demand for youngsters emerging from the region's leading colleges, with some boasting employment rates of 100 per cent and farmers beating a path to their door.

Agriculture is very successfully shaking off years of downturn to emerge as one of the most dynamic and technologically advanced industries, offering a branch of work for just about any speciality.

And such optimism is reflected in figures from the Office of National Statistics last week, showing a huge rise of 33 per cent on last year, though that was partly recovering from ground lost after 2012. The total now stands at 166,000, many of whom have come through the West Country's popular colleges.

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Louise Manning, senior lecturer in food production at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, says applications have soared, resulting in a 186 per cent increase in youngsters studying there in just three years.

And a huge proportion of that increase has been made up by young women; in 2003, they made up 14 per cent of the students – ten years later it had hit 35 per cent. It is a change mirrored to varying degrees at other colleges in the region.

That increase, says Dr Manning, is largely down to the changes in farming methods, with advances in technology removing the hard graft that had formerly acted as a bar to entry for many.

There has also been a rise in the number of career paths, many of which, such as farm managers, herd managers and nutritionists require a knowledge of farming but are less demanding in terms of actually carrying out the tasks.

She says that a "clear pathway" to employment has led to a real rise in the number of people studying and 96.3 per cent of her graduates last year were in employment or further training six months later.

"If you go back 20 years, farming was in recession. What we're seeing now is more opportunities in agriculture. Women are no longer having to work at the coalface, with many more allied industries opening up.

"There's also the rise in technology, a need for people to work with things such as phone apps."

That technology is not just crucial to lightening the load, it is also helping the most tech-savvy farmers and the swelling ranks of technical consultants (many of whom are also products of the colleges) to increase production and, given the right conditions, profit.

Changing trends in food consumption – and that's even before you get to the massive forecast rise in consumption – are also providing more opportunities, says Janatha Stout, head of agriculture at Gloucestershire's Hartpury College.

"More people want to know where their food's coming from, which opens up lots of opportunities for our students. Some of ours will be working as supermarket buyers before long.

"Despite all the headlines, it's a good industry to be in. The prices may not be so good but the wheat yields are very good this year. There is always going to be work for farmers."

Liam Stokes, curriculum manager at Wiltshire College's Lackham Farm, echoes her comments, explaining that in five years he has seen a big change in attitude and also in the source of his students.

"The change has been gradual for five years. Back then it was rare to have a girl on an agricultural course at all, now they account for about half the students."

But despite the negative headlines of falling prices, tough trading and barmy bureaucracy, the most optimism is from those outside the sector, who are often more able to look at the pure figures behind the headlines. And they like what they see.

"Most positive are the ones who come from the cities, who have seen the media focus on nutrition; generally there's been a lot more press about farming and that has captured their interest.

"The days of farmers telling their sons not to follow them have also gone and the high employment rates show why.

"As with any subject, we're looking for potential, recognising the determination to get there more than the actual knowledge, which is what we teach them.

"There's much more science and management involved now and that's inspiring them. Farming is also less macho. The face of agriculture is more accepting and we need a wider range of resources."

And even if some of the pessimism that – rightly or wrongly – pervades much of the industry is misplaced, farming still takes a certain type of person.

The day at Hartpury starts at 4.30am with milking, a pattern many readers will recognise and a way of life students will have to get used to.

"About 70 per cent are from farming families but the rest come from all sorts of backgrounds and every one of them has to be brought up to a commercial work rate," adds Mrs Stout. "They need to be able to do this seven days a week and they're pretty soon up to scratch."

Hartpury has seen a similar change in numbers, up by 60 per cent on last year, with 400 students on land-based courses, with the majority studying "straight agriculture". And though the intake is 15 per cent young women – "still not an awful lot" – it is following the trend set at the other colleges. But whatever the make-up, they are only just keeping up with demand. In Hartpury's case, there was a 100 per cent employment rate last year, with more farmers wanting students than there were qualifying.

A similar picture emerges from Jeremy Kerswell, head of land-based studies at Cannington, which is celebrating ten years since merging with Bridgwater College.

"There are 300-plus students on our agri courses, our best number ever and I think we're the fastest-growing in the South West over the last three years," he said. "Of those about 120 are full-time, 74 are work-based and 100 are studying for degrees.

"The future looks bright. We're attracting some high-fliers, from non-farming families and more girls.

"Agriculture isn't any longer a low-skilled, poorly paid career. Quite the opposite. It's now rightly recognised as a highly skilled, well-paid career with rewards for the next 20 years.

"The perception is that the future's a lot brighter than it was before. There's money to be made and the technological revolution is part of what makes it so attractive."

"We've now got girls making up 35 per cent of our courses, up from around 10 per cent three years ago.

"It's not just about 4am starts any more; it's about the broader sector and there's far more to do with food manufacture. There's also routes into consultancy, working on the family farm or into research, to name but a few.

"Demand is high. We're getting two or three inquiries a month from farmers who want our students.

"Investment in the last five years has been high and I think that's being recognised. Industry support for our courses and scholarships, as well as our research innovation and the future farming academy, have also had an impact."

There can of course be difficulties. Colleges running commercial farms are subject to the whims of the market, and as places of learning, they also have higher overheads.

But, explains Mr Kerswell, there are solutions.

"Government funding comes with a weighting factor and excellent lobbying by Landex (the agricultural colleges' industry body) has managed to ensure that additional funding is in place for the extra resources we need.

"We may operate a commercial farm – and more so than many other colleges in the region – but the learning aspect means we have overheads that other farms don't have."

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