“I’m here because it’s the best,” says Hattie Bryett (19). She’s referring to her course in agriculture and business studies at Aberystwyth University. Already she has a plan: moving-on to an Integrated Masters (MA) in agriculture, and a career in hi-tech bovine AI (artificial insemination) and eventually running her own business. Fellow student Phoenix Chappell (also 19), is equally inspired by his course. He sees himself in genetics “producing the perfect livestock…. Good for the animal; good for the environment; good for the consumer.” Two typically, highly-driven students setting-off on their academic journey Hattie and Phoenix may be, but their route into agriculture is not typical at all. It’s this fact – combined with their zeal and performance-so-far – which has made them the CLA Charitable Trust’s (CLACT) first Aberystwyth University Scholars, now approaching the end of their first of year in a three-year degree course.
Drawn from a modest donation in the CLA membership subscription, much of the Charitable Trust’s funding is made in grants to charities and community groups in England and Wales, who bring the benefits of the countryside to disadvantaged people of many kinds. In 2022 the Trustees and the university founded a bursary to support students who step into a relevant natural sciences degree who don’t come from the conventional rural background.
“My family is so supportive in so many ways,” says Hattie. “I was brought up in inner city Birmingham. I won riding lessons as a raffle-prize and had my first sniff of country air. My dad’s a plumber, my poor mum’s petrified of any animal bigger than a dog, let alone a cow! Before I came here I gained experience on a dairy-farm producing for Waitrose: a supermarket we couldn’t afford to shop in!”
Phoenix’ home is inner city Nottingham. There, he volunteered at a city farm charity and, handling lambs, pigs and poultry, he developed his determination to work in animal husbandry. He says, “Our background makes us atypical on the course: the many fellow-students who come from a farming background have such an advantage from it being in-the-blood. Everything – including their family dinner-table talk – has given them a subconscious grounding in agriculture: what needs doing at each time of the year, animal behaviour, market prices, managing people on the farm, and the right tools where to get them and how to work them. It all goes in – and we’re learning it from scratch.”
“Our background might give us a better insight into the mind-set of the majority of consumers.”
Hattie adds, “Maybe what we have got, is a closer understanding about what normal, city people really understand about farming and where their food comes from – and, after all, they’re the majority by far. Clearly there’s an education job to be done there and farmers too have a teaching-job to do. Quite often I hear fellow students talking about the lack of public understanding. Then, I think, how could they know any of that when they’re standing at the meat-counter in Tescos?”
Dr Hefin Williams, Senior Lecturer at Aberystwyth University is Hattie and Phoenix’ course supervisor. “We have up to 45 students in each year: our courses include a foundation degree BSC Hons in Agriculture, Agriculture and Animal Science, and Agriculture and Business Management. Following an initial foundation year, students can specialise in livestock and crop sciences, agricultural technology, farm business, and the interface between agriculture and the environment. We’re number one in the Guardian’s Best UK Universities for Animal Sciences and Agriculture and among the top three in the Times Educational Supplement rankings. The measures here are student attainment, facilities and teaching performance – but also student satisfaction where we’ve always scored very high. Another area where we score-high is the number of women studying on our courses.”
Part of the reason for funding the scholarships is to further enhance how the CLA engages with – nurtures and learns from the next generation. Hattie and Phoenix are both grappling not only with feeding the nation, but place high priority on animal welfare and how society tackles its responsibilities for climate change. The issues meet where we import food together with embedded carbon. “If farming could be backed properly to produce ever-better livestock, standards enforced on imported food and carbon-miles properly accounted-for, we’ll be supporting our country better,” Hattie declares. “Alongside this, we need to do a better job of improving consumers understanding – and listening to them too.”
The scholars see a more fundamental role for central government – investment in “a better animal with lower input profile and lower impact,” says Phoenix. “Government must adopt and apply principles about low commitment to prevent low-welfare/high carbon imports. Our greatest challenge however, is price in the cost-of-living crisis. The proportion of people’s income spent on food has continued to drop for many years and there’s no sign this’ll change. We can educate people – we’ve seen how people’s behaviour can be made to change. This is something the government’s got to do alongside the support it gives in the Sustainable Farming Scheme.”
It’s not surprising that neither Phoenix nor Hattie had heard of the CLA before they applied for the bursary last autumn – the organisation’s work is hardly doorstep gossip in Birmingham and Nottingham. “The scholarship’s only six months old, but awareness has been raised in the Aberystwyth Natural Sciences student population. It’s organisations like the CLA who need to get our future message across throughout the rural community and beyond into wider society,” says Phoenix, “And government too.”
We’re expecting the CLACT Aberystwyth University scholars to take part in a CLA Next Generation event at the Royal Welsh Agriculture Show in July – and we’ll be looking at ways in which we can work together enhancing the students’ studies and enable the CLA to beckon-in the future.