As little as ten years ago, studying for a qualification in farming may have meant sitting in a classroom, learning about soils, how to get the biggest yields and the technicalities of livestock production. Fast-forward to today and students are learning about everything from drones and robots to computer and entrepreneurial skills - sprinkled with a heavy dose of practical experience on farms and with big businesses.
The reason for the change is simple, says Bill Meredith, agriculture is changing rapidly and it’s vital that training and education adapts with it if we are going to maintain a skilled workforce. “During the last decade, we have seen huge changes in farming and with it we see a big increase in the number of agriculture students,” he says. “They’re realizing it offers a wonderful opportunity to be involved in a fast-paced, dynamic industry that offers jobs not just in farm management, but in a host of allied trades.”
In response, agricultural training providers like Bishop Burton College are moving away from simply teaching traditional subjects and instead embracing an entire food chain approach. “Field to fork is very much part of the curriculum now,” says Bill. “Food assurance and traceability are on par with learning about soil types and crop yields - it’s a much broader subject. The fundamental skills will always be important, but students need to have a wider understanding, particularly when it comes to technology.
“Farms can do so much remotely now with GPS and robotics, so students have to grasp the basics of production, as well as having the knowledge of operating the equipment and making sense of the data coming from it.”
In taking a broader approach, Bill says the college has developed industry partnerships to ensure students access new technologies, as well as a greater understanding of exactly what employers expect of them in the field. “Usually it’s big businesses which invest in these new technologies, so by partnering them we can inform the learning process and give students the chance to see integrated systems in action,” he says.
“Work experience will always be an important part of developing students’ skills,” he adds. “All of our courses involve work experience and we are also fortunate to have our own 850 acre mixed farm. Students get involved with duties across all the farm’s enterprises, so they are able to develop the skills employers are looking for.”
For young people interested in starting a career in agriculture, attending a college open day is a good place to start. “Talk to students and staff and find out what’s on offer. Also, try to get some work experience on a farm - whether as a volunteer or as paid work,” he says. “Joining a local Young Farmers Club is also a good opportunity to learn about your local rural area and make connections.
“Finally, make sure you keep up to date with what’s happening in the industry. If you make sure you stay informed about developments in the sector then you can really hit the ground running.”