Farm colleges are undergoing a renaissance, reshaping themselves to deliver thought-leadership, practical advice and lifelong learning to the whole farming industry, not just students.

From multi-million pound food chain centres to rural business advice services and high-tech education facilities to on-the-job training, they are offering a vital service to British farming.

Typical of a new breed of college managers driving the transition forward is Gareth Rees, principal at Askham Bryan, Yorkshire, one of the colleges taking part in the new FW/RASE College Farm Focus initiative.

“We do not espouse a survival mentality, we attempt to meet farming’s challenges head-on,” he enthuses. “And that means getting much more involved in the food chain and relaying its needs to today’s farming community and tomorrow’s farmers, farm workers and industry professionals.”

Demonstrate

It is an approach repeated in colleges across the country. “We’re not a fount of wisdom to solve all farming’s problems, but we can demonstrate some of the solutions that the industry needs,” says David Lawrence, principal of Easton College at Norwich, where demonstration units operate alongside a farm business advice service, which has already helped 1000 farmers secure £3.5m of funding.

Over the coming six weeks Farmers Weekly will profile the first six colleges chosen to participate in the joint project with the Royal Agricultural Society of England – Askham Bryan, Duchy, Easton, Moreton Morrell, Myerscough and Plumpton. It is hoped that further colleges in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be announced in 2007.

“Helping farmers address the problems they face is what Farmers Weekly is all about, and these farm colleges reflect that perfectly,” says Farmers Weekly group editor Jane King. “They are focused on practical solutions to move farm businesses forwards, delivered in a whole range of novel services, all against the backdrop of their own fully commercial farms.”

Significantly, none of the college farms gets funding from an education budget. All are profit centres in their own right, facing the same commercial realities as every other farm in the land.

Grounded in reality

It is that warts-and-all backdrop that ensures the messages emerging from the colleges are grounded in reality, not wishful thinking. “Our focus is land-based industries and particularly meeting the needs of farming families wanting to gain the skills they need for the future,” says Ioan Morgan principal of Moreton Morrell College, Warwickshire.

Practical messages aplenty are emerging, Moreton Morrell’s dairy unit cutting bedding costs from £2.20 a cow a week to 30p, for example, and achieving an average milk output of 8250 litres at 4.01% fat, with a cost-effective 62% of that coming from forage, compared with a national average of just 24%.

Over the coming weeks Farmers Weekly will first profile the colleges and then go on to relay practical messages in the magazine, plus debate on the website FWi. Further articles will appear in the RASE magazine, with regional events planned to give readers an even closer insight into the colleges’ work.

“The aim is to promote best farm practice and rural growth through these regional centres,” says RASE chief executive John Moverley. “Communicating farm technology and rural development through this project is a great way for the RASE to follow on from the demonstration units we used to run at here at Stoneleigh.

“The sites will serve as focal points for the RASE’s commitment to practice and science – encouraging innovation, demonstrating new and best practice and promoting scientific advance.

So far six colleges have been selected, according to a criteria endorsed by the colleges’ national association, Land Based Colleges Aspiring to Excellence (Landex).

“We’re delighted this project is going ahead, it highlights the great progress that is being made by land-based colleges across the country,” comments chief executive Howard Petch.

Alongside core farm production the initiative also takes account of diversification. “Our farm underpins everything we do, with the diversifications helping us sustain our land-based focus,” says John Wherry, head of rural affairs at Myerscough College, Lancashire. “What we offer is no different to what farmers are doing.”

Training

Lifelong learning is also a key theme. “We aim to serve the industry with what it needs, whether that is educating 14-year-olds or catering for those in their 70s or 80s,” says Andrew Counsell, principal at Duchy College, Cornwall.

The fresh emphasis seems to be effective, says Des Lambert, principal at Plumpton, East Sussex. “We are here to provide the farming and rural industries with the skills to address today’s farming agenda, and it is working. We have no problem finding work for our students.”

The renaissance of the nation’s farm colleges is a success story in the making: Successful colleges relaying practical advice to keep farmers in business. Watch out for some inspirational messages over the coming weeks.

Related links: