THE challenge facing agricultural colleges

December 17, 1999

Agricultural colleges were still teaching students how to hand-milk cows when Alexander Ferguson enrolled for his course three decades ago.

Today, agriculture students at Otley College, Suffolk, where Mr Ferguson is now principal, learn how to control sophisticated machinery, deal with economics and utilise computer skills. Mr Ferguson believes this is vital. "Farming has always been an intensely adaptive process and agricultural colleges will continue to thrive and survive if they are prepared to move into new areas and remain forward looking," he says.

New technology is already in use in many farms and innovations, such as satellite-monitored precision farming and robot field maintenance, are expected within the next 15 years.

While the need for appropriate training is increasingly important, this presents colleges with big financial problems. The cost of equipment can be prohibitively expensive - a large combine harvester comes with a Pounds 200,000 price tag.

At the same time, the level of employment in agriculture is falling and hence the numbers enrolling for courses is also starting to tumble. There is wide agreement that this will result in a corresponding decline in the number of agricultural colleges in the UK - there are currently more than 30.

Other aspects of land management are also coming of age, such as conservation and environmental awareness. These too are being picked up by the agricultural colleges. It is an apposite move that will give the colleges an important role in explain-ing agriculture to the public at a time when the subject has seldom seen such controversy.

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