Milking life down on the college farm

13th June 2008 at 01:00
College profile: A country estate in Dorset has to take advantage of all the opportunities that crop up to stay viable. Steve Hook reports

College profile: A country estate in Dorset has to take advantage of all the opportunities that crop up to stay viable. Steve Hook reports

David henley looks out over the rolling Dorset landscape and says: "I've got one of the best jobs going."

We are standing on the roof of the early 18th-century house that forms the centrepiece of Kingston Maurward College, where he is principal. The Dorchester college has its modern buildings - including a new learning resource centre with a library and two science laboratories - but the house and its grounds stand out in proud historic magnificence.

The house was built for George Pitt, a forebear of William Pitt the Younger, the twice-serving Prime Minister. On the edge of the 750-acre estate is the place where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 and the churchyard where his heart lies buried. Hardy was a frequent visitor as a boy, referring to the mansion as Knapwater House in Desperate Remedies.

The college is one of 34 members of the Landex group, an association of institutions across the country that provide courses in agriculture and horticulture. The association includes large general further education colleges, so smaller, more specialised institutions such as Kingston Maurward have had to box clever to remain viable.

The college's approach has been to do as many other grand estates have done and throw open its gates to the outside world. It is licensed to conduct marriages and hosts receptions, using meat from its own livestock for the catering. The main building's grand interior provides a conference venue that has been used by businesses, local government and the police. And the lake is used as the backdrop for concerts, including rock events.

The revenue from these activities provides pound;1.9 million of Maurward's annual pound;9.2 million income; the income from conference hosting alone is more than pound;500,000.

With environmental issues and gardening television programmes becoming increasingly popular, the number of applications for courses at the college has risen. And Mr Henley is keen to dispel the idea that farming is in the doldrums.

"If you're a lone business person and the business is going bust, you can leave off work and go home," he says. "But a farmer lives at his work. Farming is more than a job. It's a way of life."

This, Mr Henley says, is where Kingston Maurward's location comes into its own. Here, 560 students work in surroundings - including two farmsteads and walled gardens - that give them a sense of that lifestyle. Many are from urban homes. Half of the county's 701,100 population comes from the towns of Bournemouth, Poole, Weymouth or Portland

Students arrive on the college's fleet of subsidised buses - unless they are in residential accommodation - so that they are on hand to milk the cows before dawn.

Mr Henley, a Yorkshire farmer's son, becomes uncharacteristically edgy at the mention of one particular aspect of farming: set-aside land. The subsidy for agreeing not to over-produce crops is, he says, largely a thing of the past. But it does bring up the issue of European regulations.

"Farming is a business with a huge amount of state interference," he says. "Regulations are interpreted very literally in the UK and less literally in France."

Keeping up with the machinations of the common agricultural policy is just one aspect of agriculture that has made farming a multi-skilled vocation.

"You might be using level two (GCSE-equivalent) skills when you're milking a cow," says Mr Henley, "and level five (degree level) and above when sitting down working out your farm plan, reviewing your business plan, dealing with new regulations or looking at animal welfare legislation."

Then there is the equipment. The technology that comes with a modern tractor has more processing power than the onboard computer that put Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin on the Moon. One gadget records the fertility of each tiny area of a field, monitoring the density of crop as it is harvested, and stores this data so that fertiliser can be applied efficiently in future.

As well as the traditional ubjects of agriculture, horticulture, animal care, countryside management and equine studies, the college offers information technology and business training. And it has been unable to resist plumbing, which was introduced this month.

But Mr Henley's philosophy is not to dilute the core subjects - agriculture and horticulture - at what he terms "Dorset's college of the countryside".

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