Rural idyll at a high price

16th June 2000 at 01:00
For those seeking a career in the

struggling farm industry, a whole new set of skills are needed, reports Sue Jones

FARMING is one of the first jobs we hear about as children. Cheery cows, sheep, ducks and chickens have appeared in our picture books ever since Peter Rabbit nibbled his first lettuce.

Though most of us live in towns and only 2 per cent of the workforce is in agriculture, it is one of our high-profile industries.

And yet it is also an industry in crisis. Seen as privileged by some because of European subsidies, many farmers work 100 hours a week to clear pound;2,000 a year and small farmers are going out of business. Is it a job anyone in his or her right mind would train for?

Student numbers fell as the labour force contracted, but "it can't get any less," said Philip Broomhead, director of studies at the Holme Lacy campus of the Pershore Group of colleges. He believes that young people are clearer now about what farming is like and how they intend to make a career in it. Retention rates are better than they were a decade ago.

His students get jobs because they have adapted to a new kind of labour market. The job of "agricultural labourer" is less in demand, but specialist skills are needed on a temporary or seasonal basis. Workers must improve their technical knowledge and look for contract work, as do many small-scale farmers.

Holme Lacy offers foundation to HND-level courses, but in greatest demand is the First Diploma and National Certificate for school-leavers. Rewritten by Edexcel to improve nationwide credibility, the courses provide core and specialist modules on a "pick and mix" basis.

British agriculture has a history of adapting to crisis. Once our major occupation, it began the slide into economic depression in the 1870s. The new farming regions of North America, Australia and New Zealand, and innovations such as refrigerator ships, helped to undercut prices in an era of free trade. By the 1930s farmers were in debt and agricultural labourers suffered some of the lowest pay, longest hours and worst housing in Britain.

But the Second World War made self-sufficiency in food essential to Britain's survival and farmers got guaanteed prices and stability. Since the war, the British government and later the European Union have intervened to secure food supplies, support farmers and maintain rural communities. But the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade insists on opening up trade to the free market. Once again, farmers must compete against the world.

The survivors are the large-scale farms, the high-tech and those who diversify into niche markets. As in manufacturing, automation is replacing all but the most highly-skilled labour. There are fewer jobs on the farm, but opportunities are expanding in agriculture's ancilliary services. Farming is now a high-tech industry in which combine harvesters cost pound;100,000, and tractors can calculate the amount of fertiliser to use while checking where they are with global positioning systems.

There is a shortage of technicians to service the machinery, says Roger Tiller, section manager for engineering and forestry at Sparsholt College, Hampshire.

He sees good prospects for engineers with NVQs at levels 2 and 3 with equipment-servicing and maintenance firms, while Pencoed College, in Bridgend, Wales, finds that some of its students get jobs with farm suppliers as animal nutritionists.

Just as some farmers have to diversify, so colleges are expanding by broadening their provision. Pencoed will be experimenting with sheep-milking and vegetable production on its farm and has started a short course for smallholders. Horticulture is also a booming business.

Hartpury College (part of the University of the West of England) not only runs its mainstream courses in landscaping, decorative horticulture and sports turf, but has also established an equestrian centre and adult classes in subjects such as garden design, arboriculture and short courses at the leisure end of the market.

Nicholas Totty, a senior lecturer at Hartpury, believes there is a strong link between horticulture and lifelong learning. There is job satisfaction, it attracts a wide range of people of both sexes and all ages and abilities.

As Roger Tiller says: "Small farms have been the starting place for so many people and I would hate to see them disappear." RUSSELL SACH

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