The agri-food industry needs to work closely with universities to create the highly-skilled graduates it sorely needs, the head of Harper Adams told the Sentry conference.

Vice-chancellor Dr David Llewellyn said the number of students on agriculture, forestry, agricultural science and food studies courses peaked in 2001-02 to just below 6,800, and by 2011-12 had still not recovered from the drop-off after the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

He said the figure of 18,000 enrolled in land-based courses was often talked about, but did not reflect courses where food production was the focus.

The situation is particularly stark at post-graduate research level, where student numbers have dipped 27% over the past 10 years, Dr Llewellyn said.

“If we want to have an agri-tech strategy, with applied scientists working in the industry, this is a problem we have got to address.

“We need mastery of knowledge, we need to be thinking about expertise and the practical skills element coming through.

“The issue is not a new one and it is important we do something about the supply side.”

Dr Llewellyn said the other recurring challenge was to convince young people, particularly from non-farming backgrounds, that agriculture is an attractive industry to work in.

At Harper Adams University, about 80% of students have a rural background and typically 50-60% come from a farming one.

He cited a 2011 study in which teenagers from inner-city Stoke were asked their attitudes to farming and the most popular responses were phrases such as “traditional”, “lonely’, “poor prospects” and “farming is for old people”.

Mr Llewellyn said once students were recruited for training it was important to keep them in the agri-food industry, at a time where movement between careers was increasingly common among young people.

“Agriculture is right at the ‘leaky’ end of the pipeline,” he said. “We have to do everything can retain young graduates in the industry.”

“Industry has to play its role. Don’t expect oven-ready grads to produce everything. You need to invest in them as much as we are investing in their training.”