British farming is down on its luck, but reports Justina Hart, agricultural colleges have detected some green shoots.
FORGET for a moment mixed messages - and feelings - about the right to roam, fox-hunting, and people who drive Land-Rovers. This time British farming really is stuck in the mud.
In the worst slump since the 1930s, farm incomes have been slashed in half and are expected to fall more dramatically this year. Thanks to the BSE crisis, the collapse in the Asian markets, the strong pound, high interest rates and cheap imports, every agricultural sector is affected. A quarter of all farm businesses are said to be verging on bankruptcy.
"Most farmers are so desperate they'd get out tomorrow," said Mike Lewis of the Somerset Federation of Young Farmers' clubs. "They're saying to their sons and daughters to get other qualifications, to go into other jobs, so they're not burdened with their parents' debts. Why go into an industry in such decline?"
Morale in the livestock farming community in the South-west, which consists mostly of small family businesses, is at a record low. The average age of farmers is between 40 and 60, and, having followed "ancestral wisdom," few have any formal training.
In a recent survey by Prosper (formerly Devon and Cornwall training and enterprise council), 87 per cent of farmers believed farming was a poor career choice for young people.
"There's been a complete cutting-off of young blood," said Ian Johnson, a regional official of the National Farmers' Union.
But while the traditional, father-son operation seems threatened, a counter-trend is being reported. Bicton College of Agriculture, in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, still retains a reasonable balance of more traditional courses, and has seen numbers of full-time agricultural students increase slightly in 1998. They now account for 20 per cent of the college's full-time intake.
Principal Malcolm Florey said: "It's more than I had here in 1986 when I came to Bicton." He attributes the rise to the lack of discretionary awards, meaning that students from further afield seeking residential courses are shopping around. Bicton, he believes, is recognised as one of the few specialist agricultural colleges left.
Dr Steve Dowbiggin, principal at Capel Manor in Middlesex, said: "Numbers studying traditional agricultural courses have stayed the same or increased by 1 or 2 per cent since incorporation. At the same time, agricultural colleges have grown enormously, but the growth is in other areas - arboriculture, horticulture, equine studies and animal care." For several years, colleges have been producing just enough students on traditional courses "to satisfy natural wastage," he added.
The older generation is suffering because it is no longer enough to have practical skills. Colleges can play a vital role in equipping more entrepreneurial young people - perhaps without a family background in farming - with IT, business and administration skills.
Forward-thinking farmers are diversifying into "niche markets" such as organic farming, and planning ventures with other producers. Farmers need to look towards where the produce is going, said Malcolm Florey.
"Young people are optimistic. They realise you've got to be more visionary, have business and financial skills. I've got jobs for highly-qualified farmworkers I can't fill," he added.
As well as improving the image of farming to attract the young, colleges must develop part-time and flexible courses to update the technical skills of the older generation.
"It's hard to persuade farmers who are working 14 hours a day to go to college." said Mr Florey. "Colleges need to react flexibly, take training into the community and consult hard with industry," he said.