Innovative learning

Isobel Davidson finds out more about the trends and innovation in land-based education

With UK farming and land management on the cusp of transformation, colleges and universities offering land-based education are making important changes to their offer for students.

Royal Agricultural University’s (RAU) Dr Kate Pressland, who manages the new Centre for Effective Innovation in Agriculture (CEIA), says: “There has been a shift in colleges and universities towards commercialisation and being encouraged to develop intellectual property or products. In turn, agricultural institutions are increasingly looking to support students’ skills in IT, exploring new technologies, and incubating innovation.”

Nurturing innovation

Farm491 was established at the RAU in 2016 as an innovation space to support agri-tech and agri-food entrepreneurs in converting their ideas into viable businesses.

“Farm491 and other start-up incubators linked to universities are incredibly energising for students,” says Dr Pressland. “There is support for developing business plans and refining how to get a new start-up going. It can really change how a student interacts with their degree or masters – agricultural students need not see themselves as becoming consumers of products and technologies, they can play a very important role in the research and development of innovations at the start of their careers.”

Commercial skills

The increasing focus on commercial skills is reflected at Plumpton College in East Sussex.

“We are building up courses based on what the industry needs, and that is not just practical training,” explains Liz Mouland, Head of marketing. “Multi-disciplinary, employability skills have grown in importance, including customer service, communications, IT skills, business skills and data analysis.”

Harper Adams’s Principal Lecturer in rural land management and valuation Dr Mark Simcock agrees. “Estates are moving away from the time when their income came largely from agriculture; now the majority often comes from diversifications. Our courses are reflecting this by teaching the skills needed for big data, measurement and analysis, project management, and bringing people together to solve problems.”

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Harper Adams’s Principal Lecturer in rural land management and valuation Dr Mark Simcock

This problem-based learning approach will be central to Black Mountains College in the Brecon Beacons, which is welcoming its first students in September. “Our courses and programmes invite students to think critically about global issues and systems, using experiential and problem-based learning, practical skills and arts-based training, alongside more traditional activities of reading and writing,” says Director of communications Emma Bald.

“Our college and activities are embedded in the community and the land, and our hope is that it will spark positive social and ecological outcomes. “Black Mountains College has been founded in direct response to the climate crisis and our focus is on the circular economy, supporting a thriving local community, and sustainable regenerative approaches.”

An environmental approach

Farming that goes hand-in-hand with the environment is at the centre of Harper Adams’s student offer. “Our courses are focusing more and more on soil health and the environment,” says Louisa Dines, Principal Lecturer in agronomy.

“Our students recognise they will need to do things differently to their predecessors, and they are keen to explore regenerative agriculture, cover cropping, companion cropping and precision agriculture. “Harper Adams is now developing a School of Sustainable Food and Farming. We also have vertical farming research facilities and smart dairy facilities, as well as world-leading projects that marry sustainable farming with the latest technologies like our HandsFree Hectare project, which has now broadened out to a 35-hectare farm.”

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Louisa Dines, Principal Lecturer in agronomy at Harper Adams

The latest technologies

Ensuring students are well-equipped to capitalise on the latest technologies and equipment is inspiring investment in new facilities.

At Plumpton College, recent new developments include robotic milking facilities, a new piggery, new training kitchens and a new agrifood centre.

“Excellence in teaching is the most important part of our offer, but state-of-the-art facilities like our new Agri-Food Centre give our students the equipment, resources and experience to learn the new skills they will need in a changing industry,” says Liz.

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Plumpton College

Land-based institutions are also addressing barriers to new product and technology uptake. Led by RAU in collaboration with Harper Adams, Reading, Newcastle and Warwick Universities, the Centre for Effective Innovation in Agriculture aims to bridge the disconnect between research, innovation and farming in practice.

Dr Pressland envisages that the virtual centre’s work will provide multiple benefits for students. “By sharing the work of the CEIA across our institutions, students can learn what best practice in co-developing innovations looks like, as well as developing their understanding about the challenges of adoption of farming technologies.

Taking an interest in research collaboration and co-design into their future careers will give them the tools to help make sure innovations have the best chance of a positive impact for agriculture.”

Addressing the skills shortage

Land-based education institutions are instrumental in tackling skill shortages in farming and land management. Plumpton College is seeing increasing numbers of students entering its countryside management courses, as well as growth in demand for crop technician courses and strong interest in its new butchery, bakery and fishmonger apprenticeships.

“We are seeing growth in adults retraining, especially into countryside management and wine production but also horticulture, where the industry’s skills need is particularly great,” explains Liz. “Our One Garden Brighton project development blends tuition of soughtafter horticultural skills with a newly restored tourism destination.”

Land-based education institutions are providing a launchpad to help students make their mark on farming and land management for the future.

Agri-food development at Plumpton College

Established in 1926, independent Plumpton College in East Sussex offers over 19 different course specialisms.

The college’s Lambert Farm is one of the largest working student farms in the South East. Plumpton College has made significant investments into its agriculture, horticulture and agri-food facilities. The purpose is not only to ensure the equipment available to students reflects the latest industry developments, but also to help secure better agrifood productivity and efficiency post-Brexit.

Parts of Lambert Farm, which showcases dairy, beef, pig and sheep enterprises, have been redeveloped with the inclusion of robotic milking facilities, new training kitchens, and a new piggery that is set to open in the autumn.

The college has built a new agri-food facility at the heart of its campus, a two-storey centre of excellence in knowledge transfer and business improvement for rural businesses and communities to utilise