As Easter approaches, the flow of tourists into the south-west is increasing. About 26m visitors are expected this year and few will have heard of Duchy College. Yet thousands of the rural tourism businesses and farms they visit stay in profit from knowledge provided by the college’s Rural Business School.
The Rural Business School is making a significant contribution to the southwest economy with data gathering and analysis. Sounds dull? The work the college does translates directly into practical opportunities for farms and rural tourism businesses. I’d like to tell you about three projects.
South West Tourism is the regional tourist board that covers the southwest up to Gloucestershire. Its 4500 members range from rural B&Bs to large hotel chains, visitor attractions and holiday parks. Together with South West Tourism and partner organisations Devon Farms, Cornish Farm Holidays and Farm Stay, we have developed a system for accumulating and analysing data for a new benchmarking programme.
Members offer information about their operations and receive reports analysing each business, comparing them with others. The information is based on analysis of the top 25% average and bottom 25% average of a peer group, so members see where they stand.
Benchmarking is not a one-off exercise, but a process to help businesses evolve, and encourage their development. Imagine you have a farm-based, self-catering unit rated three stars. The benchmarking system shows you how you are doing, and can help you consider plans for expansion. If you invested to upgrade to four stars, how much could that lift your business? Benchmarking enables you to compare yourself with like-minded businesses, and where you could be tomorrow.
Combining our skills with South West Tourism has proved popular with rural businesses in the region and could be valuable across the UK.
From data to training
The successful collaboration with South West Tourism has led the organisation to ask us to help provide training in rural tourism.
Annette Coles, rural tourism project manager at South West Tourism said: “Two key commitments are to provide training and business support. Duchy College is the main land-based college in Devon and Cornwall offering courses at all levels. It’s an important centre for business studies and academic work in the rural industries. That’s why we first linked up for benchmarking, and then it was a natural progression to look at working together on training.
“Government funding has a focus on training for qualifications. Many businesses aren’t so interested in an individual getting a qualification they’re more interested in training that benefits their business. The college provides training, flexibility and variety.”
Data and training
The range of vocational courses at Duchy is vast. We aim for courses that are flexible to suit people’s needs – from full-time courses to short activities for those with less spare time. We provide one-day workshops on topics such as: sustainable tourism disability and discrimination legislation insurance hazards and risks and opportunities such as websites and ecommerce. We also have a Foundation Degree in Rural Tourism, which can lead to an Honours Degree in Tourism.
Data and yield
A second project that takes data and creates a better yield is the Grassland Challenge, which we carry out for the Cornwall Grassland Society in association with the Institute of Grassland and Environment Research (IGER). It began in 2003 and welcomes the involvement of all UK farmers. It is another example of putting academic disciplines to work, evaluating methods and measuring the whole farm business. Exploring the data means we can help farmers use grassland and home-grown forage more effectively.
Richard Soffe, head of the Rural Business School, said: “Forget the picture you may have of distant academics in ivory towers. Here, people work in muddy boots in the field, taking information direct from rural business, working with it and replanting it so that it will yield greater knowledge and better business.”
Local picture, national data
The third project using data to help farming is the new involvement with DEFRA‘s Farm Business Survey (FBS). In November last year, we took on joint responsibility for the southwest region of the FBS with Exeter University.
Michael Winter, director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at Exeter University, said: “Exeter had been managing the FBS for years, but as courses changed, it was thought that the survey’s potential was not being optimised.
“Duchy College has travelled a long way recently. It has a good reputation in the southwest and is making a tremendous impact on farming, not only in its immediate area. Seeing data transfer into knowledge is important,” he said.
Prof Winter, involved as co- director, and Mr Soffe, have created a strong bridge between academic research and practical learning. The FBS means Duchy College is working with national centres of excellence in maintaining a unique source of farm management information. Nationally, FBS researchers visit about 2,200 farms.
Duchy College’s Rural Business School is responsible for building up the picture of 300 farms across southwestern counties, looking at accounts, productivity and other data.
Richard Griffiths, Stoke Climsland Farm
We’ve just had in a group of students for two-day taster sessions. The enthusiasm of 15-year-olds is always a pleasure. Amazingly, they were up at 4.30am to do the milking. Mind you, I’m not sure if they’d gone to bed!
We’ve also had an interesting safety awareness day with the Health & Safety Executive, with 300 farmers. HSE puts on a good show making us think about managing the risks of falling from heights, livestock handling, driving, all-terrain bikes and manual handling.
I was a bit sceptical but I learnt something useful at each session. You can always learn: For example, understanding more about muscles and breathing and avoiding injuries from manual handling. The onus isn’t just on your team working safely you’ve got to be aware of what your contractors are doing, as you share responsibilities with them.
Last autumn we thought we had good silage stocks, but it’s been handy this year as we’ve needed it over the wet winter. It’s been good quality. One of the students commented on how good the maize silage was. Intrigued, I asked more. “I put it into a local competition at home and it won first prize,” was the reply.