If you are interested in farm diversification just look at what Myerscough College has achieved. From equine livery to floristry and motorsport to turf care, this college has it all.
Purists may dismiss that as diluting the farming focus. But the opposite is the case. By pursuing sectors beyond farming this college has increased student numbers to deliver a critical mass that has invested in its farm, teaching facilities, a slick Rural Business Centre and a host of functional diversification ventures from which the whole rural industry can learn.
“The farm underpins everything we do, with the diversifications helping to sustain our land-based focus. It’s a bit like a farm ice-cream diversification helping to sustain the main farm. We’re no different,” says John Wherry, who heads the college’s rural affairs department.
More than 100 years of history were superseded when it was realised that skills in growing grass for forage could be expanded to include turf care, animal husbandry skills extended to equine and small animal work and farm mechanisation expertise adapted for a motorsport emphasis.
The result is a vibrant, land-based college that can demonstrate real thought leadership for the farming industry, particularly as it looks to diversify. “Without the other courses the college wouldn’t be what it is today. It is like New York, it never sleeps – it is a constant hive of activity,” enthuses Garry Wilkinson, the College’s Director of Business Ventures.
At its heart is the 350ha farm, which mainly focuses on lowland sheep and a 300-cow dairy herd. A new £350,000 dairy will comprise 12,000-litre bulk tank, new cubicles, collecting yard, backing gate, farm information centre, toilets and facilities for students, visitors and disabled. The 20/40 swing-over Fullwood parlour, together with an extra 50 cows, should help keep the enterprise profitable.
“Our goal is to run a profitable farm, reflecting what local farmers face,” says Allan Nickson, who has a particular focus on agricultural teaching and heads the Agriculture and Countryside team. “We can’t afford to invest in every single piece of cutting edge technology, so for some areas of the curriculum we utilise partner farms in the locality. But we aim to provide an experience for students and a backdrop to support our training work.”
Benchmarking of college farm costs is one such area, with vet bills coming in for particular scrutiny to see how costs of mastitis, lameness, infertility and other problem areas compare, and whether they all add up to less than 0.8p/litre, for example.
Although less than 20% of the college’s work is on primary agriculture, it is a pioneer of one-to-one training in the workplace, whereby the college’s Paul Hodgkinson visits farms to assess students who have been studying at home using workbooks and on-line services, including MollNet, the Myerscough On-Line Learning Network.
“It works extremely well, particularly as many farms these days can’t afford to have a key worker away from the business for long periods,” says Mr Nickson. The on-line approach has been extended to turf care and arboriculture and is proving so popular that students are enrolling from as far away as Portugal, Brazil and Australia.
The Rural Business Centre, part college-funded and part-funded by the North-West Development Agency, not only acts as an advice hub for the industry, it also provides an incubator service for new start-up rural enterprises, providing the business skills that new start enterprises so often need.
“We have six or seven start-ups at any one time, with capacity for up to 12, working alongside the college’s experts, who can provide that advice, as well as admin support and technical expertise,” says Mr Wherry.
Wesmar BioEnergy is one beneficiary of the approach, started by a Myerscough ex-student keen to develop oilseed rape contracts for biofuel locally.
The £1m a year turnover centre also hosts other industry bodies, such as FACE, FWAG and the RSPB, further extending the information available from what is effectively a north west advice hub, says Mr Wherry.
“The staff team really are the backbone, offering expertise in the land-based industries to whoever wants it, be that through student education, advising farmers or pursuing specific projects.”
A particular focus has been to run workshops and produce guidance notes on key topics, such as catchment sensitive farming, nutrient management, soil management and boundary management.
“These have been very well received. We see ourselves translating what is often good advice from the experts into the sort of language farmers can put into practice,” he says.
So, what of the future? Mr Wherry suspects farming will take a greater share of the college’s focus in future, as profitability returns. “There is a mood that youngsters want to be more involved, they see it as a professional industry, requiring expertise and that’s something they will pursue as a career. At the moment technical farming has taken a bit of a back seat, but over the next 10 years I’ve little doubt that there will be a return of focus to those technical issues and we’ll be here to respond to that.”