7 September 2001

Vital attraction

Farming is a decidedly

unsexy option for school

leavers choosing what

college course to take.

David Cousins went to

Easton College, near Norwich,

to find out how they are

addressing the problem

ATTRACTING young people into agriculture is hardly a new problem. It used to be thought that the main reason was the lack of available jobs, which have tended to decline as the industry got more mechanised and less labour-intensive.

But talk to a very agriculturally-orientated college like Easton, near Norwich, and the real reason becomes clearer. The college may not be as big as many of its competitors in terms of numbers of students, but it is investing £3m in its facilities and is confident that it can keep up farm student numbers against a backdrop of a declining agricultural industry.

Like every college in the land, it has broadened its range of courses to include animal care, equestrian, countryside management, floristry and even interior design. And while these have no problem attracting students, the college is having to work ever harder to keep up numbers on its agricultural ones.

"Agriculture is still the flagship at the college, but we have had to diversify as the number of potential agricultural students declined," says deputy principal, Tricia Bell.

But the strange thing is that there are now more jobs available in agriculture than there are students to fill them.

"We are forever getting calls from farmers asking for students who can come to work for them when they have completed their courses, but we do not have enough," says Ms Bell.

"The problem is getting potential students to consider the agricultural industry in the first place," she adds. "16-year-olds want a short training period and high pay; their perception is that farming is all about low pay, long hours, dirt and cold weather and perception is all these days."

Some 16-year-olds do value things like the chance to work in then open air, deal with animals and not be enclosed in a noisy factory or stuffy office, she adds, and they are the backbone of those coming on agricultural courses. Interestingly, too, 80% of people who come for an interview do then choose to take a course at Easton.

Efforts recalled

Efforts are also being redoubled to get potential students from non-farming backgrounds on to the campus in the first place to get a taste for agriculture. A target of bringing in 6000 primary and secondary pupils on visits to the college and its farm was set at the beginning of the year, but then drastically scaled down by foot-and-mouth.

Ms Bell and her colleagues are also trying harder then ever to get the message across to careers departments in schools – the linchpin in the whole process. They also attend careers evening and get local people on the campus with the bait of an attractive converted barn that is available for use by local groups.

But they concede that farmings insistence that it is "different" from other industries puts potential new entrants off.

F&M has not helped either. Not just because it has lent the industry an unwelcome air of being impoverished and disease-ridden, but also in the way it has affected existing students. Though Norfolk has not had any outbreaks of the disease, many students living on farms were unable to get in to the college to attend their courses.

It is also a time of change for the colleges 250ha (620-acre) farm. Like many colleges, it became apparent at Easton several years ago that, with farm incomes down, there was not the money available to invest in the farming side. Many colleges got rid of their farms altogether, but head of agriculture, Paul Dunning, says Easton is committed to keeping theirs as an educational resource.

However, structural changes had to be made. Day-to-day work on the 240ha (600 acres) of arable land was put out to contract with Morley Research Centre a couple of years ago. Now there is the dilemma of the colleges 90-head dairy herd, which, though milked in a relatively modern parlour, is still under-funded.

Talks are going on to establish a partnership with a local dairy farmer. He will stock the Easton dairy unit with his cows and his cowman will look after them. In return he will use the colleges soon-to-be-expanded milking parlour and there will be a profit share arrangement between the two. Students will continue to have full access to the cows in the same way that they did before.

Local dairy farmer

In similar fashion, the colleges own 150-sow pig herd was closed three years ago and the land rented to a local producer who keeps his 100-sow indoor and outdoor breeding herd there. There is also a 6000-head broiler chicken and turkey unit, as well as a sheep flock based on 150 breeding ewes.

"Like most college farms, it is very difficult to maintain investment when farming is so unprofitable," says Mr Dunning. "This way, we have the people who are best at it doing the actual farming."