UCAS listings: The business of farming

Student profile: Chris Brough, studying for an MSc in Farm Management at Cirencester College of Agriculture
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All too often the profile of agriculture is that it isn't really an academic course," says student Chris Brough. "This couldn't be more wrong!"

Chris has just completed a one-year post-graduate diploma in Advanced Farm Management. He's now going on to take an MSc in the same subject at Cirencester College of Agriculture.

"On our course we've dealt with all the very latest changes in agricultural management. As well as being on top of subjects like soil management, which involves a lot of science, you also have to keep up to date with the political changes, to do with the Common Agricultural Policy and the GATT agreement.

"You have to be able to work out how to run a farm efficiently, to get the best return for your money and time. It involves a great deal of detailed analysis, and I think all farmers are now realising they have to be much more business-like. It isn't just ploughing and making bales of hay!"

Chris's course is basically the principles of business management, as applied to agriculture.

"This year we've been getting a really good grounding in management, with lectures on human resources, business strategies, accounts, marketing and business law. We tie that in to agriculture by using specific case studies, and look at the effect of changes of policy and redevelopment on farms.

"We look at how to make break-even analysis on different projects, and the effects of different exchange rate changes, such as those affecting the price of corn. It's all linked to contemporary politics."

Most farmers of this generation go to college to learn about the science behind what they do, like crop management, as well as the business principles that Chris describes.

"At the moment things are changing so quickly in the world of agriculture, and you have to be educated to keep up with what's going on," he says.

Chris was born in the traditional farming and mining area between Barnsley and Doncaster. His father worked for British Coal, but Chris decided a life underground was not for him. A wise decision, as it turned out. Many of his friends were made redundant when the pits closed in the mid-1980s.

"I left school at 16," he said. "We'd always lived next door to a farm and from the age of eight or nine I was there helping out. I knew it was what I wanted to do."

He worked on a farm for a couple of years, on various YTS schemes. In his mid-twenties he decided he needed more formal qualifications.

"I went to college and first of all took an HND, which was basically my access course to higher education. But then I decided to get back to work, and worked as an agricultural foreman at a farm near Pontefract until two years ago. I basically assisted the owner with crop-spraying, crop husbandry, arable operations and soil management."

But he decided that his future lay in agricultural consultancy, and for that he would need more formal qualifications. So, at the age of 32, he went back and took a BA Hons in Business Management, before taking the course at Cirencester.

Many at the college are mature students, who return for one or two-year courses to learn new skills or aspects of their job. A large number of the students are still from traditional farming backgrounds, who realise they need more than experience to run a farm that is financially successful, as the margins are now much tighter.

"There does seem to be quite a divide between towns and cities and the country now," says Chris. "People seem to think that because you study agriculture you must be a bit dim. In fact it's a very testing course, which involves far more than people think.

"There is a huge amount of science involved, to find out how to get the best out of the land and the animals. A few adjustments here and there can make a huge difference, which is why so many farmers are employing consultants to look at their business practices."

Every week, Chris attends 30 hours of lectures. Not all are lectures in the traditional sense, but rather seminars where everyone can put their own point of view.

"Most of the lectures are based around changes in agricultural management," says Chris. "The course, I think, succeeds or fails on the calibre of the students, and we have had a really good group."

To get the most out of an agricultural course, he says, it is important to have experience of what farming is really like.

"It's a profession," he adds. "You can't just stop work at five o'clock - it's something that you never really get away from. But it's a perfect life for me, because I love working in the fresh air. People see farm- workers as being physically fit but without much up top. That isn't generally true, and is a patronising urban myth."

As he's a mature student, he's having to exist on help from family and the bank. "I've borrowed around pounds 10,000 to fund this course and the MSc," he says. "But I regard it as an investment in my future.

"It may not pay off immediately, but 10 years down the line I expect to be paid much more than people without my qualifications."