There is more to celebrate at Plumpton than just another successful vintage from the college’s flourishing vineyard. With agricultural student numbers rising and new centres for rural business management, horticulture and wine making, the college’s planned expansion is well under way.
“Like many colleges we dropped the word ‘agriculture’ from our title several years ago, which drew some consternation from the industry,” admits principal Des Lambert.
“But without diversifying into other vocational areas the college just wouldn’t be here today, and we have always remained totally committed to farming, it is one of the things we know best.”
The strategy has paid off, the extra courses maintaining the critical mass to keep the college going, and the continuing farm focus ensuring agricultural students are recruited from a wide area.
“In percentage terms there may seem to be fewer agricultural course students than 20 years ago, but the college is now much bigger, with over 800 full-time students.”
The 920ha college farm not only provides a backdrop for studies and practical work, it also offers a commercially realistic scenario for industry training, which ranges from short courses and one-day workshops to a thriving work-based training scheme, backed by the College’s Rural Business Management Centre.
With funding from the Learning and Skills Council the Centre offers advice to the industry in its widest form, ranging from new venture start-ups courses to cashflow control, grant applications and scheme compliance short courses, says Mr Lambert.
“Plumpton is 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, there are more job offers than we can fill. And the amount of advice we are providing to the industry keeps growing.”
Given that one of the farm’s key enterprises is extensive livestock production on the predominantly National Trust-owned South Downs, low-input livestock rearing and environmental management are core themes.
Most Texel cross lambs from the 800 North Country Cheviot cross Lleyn flock are marketed through the Organic Meat and Livestock Co-op, with stubble turnips aiding finishing. Beef production is traditional Sussex cattle living on “the view and fresh air”. “It’s as extensive as you can get,” notes Mr Lambert, providing a good backdrop for training on ESA and SSSI management. Elsewhere, the estate is used to relay messages on cross-compliance, ELS, pollution management and HLS applications.
Farm: 920ha mixed farm typical of south-east England
Soil: Thin chalk Downland through Lower Chalk and Greensands to heavy Gault Clay
Rainfall: 30-year average 1002mm
Enterprises: Extensive beef and sheep; semi-intensive pigs and dairy; maize and grass silage; cereals; oilseed rape; vines
Typcial outputs: 9t/ha wheat, 4.1t/ha OSR, 8100 litres a cow milk
Key features: Extensive grazing; large diverse estate, mixed farm, pollution management; organic; biofuels; commercial vineyard and winery
“We already run one of the college vehicles on biodiesel and we want to look at the whole issue of the environmental footprint from using cold-pressed vegetable oil as biodiesel on our own farm,” says head of agriculture David Lamb.
The Carbon Trust has been involved, looking at biodiesel production alongside plans for a college wind turbine and geothermal pumps using warm groundwater from beneath the campus to heat the winery. Feeding cake from the pressed oilseed crop to dairy cattle could be the key to biodiesel success on the college farm, he believes.
The 250-cow autumn calving Holstein dairy herd averages 8100 litres a cow a year at 3.85% fat, fed on a TMR system and housed early last year due to limited grazing on the then drought-stricken land. There is no in-parlour feeding so a backing gate is planned, plus a new dairy in due course, says farm manager Simon Newington. A new calf building is scheduled for next year, with automated individual weighing and feed allocation.
The 130-sow pig unit is not a normal enterprise for the area, admits Mr Lambert, but such responsive animals give students a great lesson in attention to detail. A general theme farmers will be familiar with is dirty water disposal and pollution management in general, a key issue of farm planning at Plumpton, he says.
At Netherfield, near Battle, in the east of the county the college’s Sustainable Food and Farming Centre focuses on a range of advice including smallholder support, a growing trend in the south east.
Last, the new £1.2m winery is the UK’s only dedicated wine research and training centre. Over 20,000 bottles of award-winning red, white and sparkling wine are produced commercially by centre manager Peter Morgan each year from the college’s three vineyards covering 10ha.
Looking to the future Mr Lambert has little doubt there is light at the end of the tunnel. “You ask any of today’s young enthusiasts, who may just be farming out of the back of a pick-up, and they will tell you that things are on the turn. We’re here to make sure they have the support they need to take advantage of that.”
And Plumpton is putting money where its mouth is by investing in a new visitor centre for schoolchildren. “Taking the farming message to youngsters is a key part of what we do. Before foot-and-mouth we had 7500 children a year visiting the site. We want to get back to that and more,” says Mr Lambert.
With support from various charities including the Kleinwort Trust over £100,000 has been fund-raised by the college and it is building a new children’s centre that will open in early 2007.
Status: Independent Land-based College
Focus: Land-based industries-core farming, organic, environment, horticulture,forestry, equine, animal care
Students: 810 full-time,3000 part-time
Focal points: Rural Business Management Centre; UK centre of excellence for wine making; Sustainable Food and Farming Centre including smallholder focus at Netherfield; new schools interpretation centre
Phone: 01273 890 454