Courses in agriculture: Use your head: live off the land

Farming isn't just about animals; the new agriculture degrees hone business skills too
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The Independent Online

Agriculture means farming, right? Wrong. Agriculture these days is just as concerned with food economics, marketing and consumers, rural environment and business management, and the increase in new technology. Not only that, but agriculture "is a big component of changing the world for the better," says Professor Richard Ellis.

He's the head of the school of agriculture, policy and development at the University of Reading, which includes the departments of agricultural and food economics, and international and rural development. It's also home to the Centre for Agriculture Strategy.

In the world's poorest countries, two billion people depend directly on agriculture for their income. However, Professor Ellis says that in the UK many people are dismissive of agriculture as a subject for study because it's seen as such a minor part of the economy. Yet almost 13 per cent of the UK's working population is involved in food production - and that number increases if you include alcohol.

In the Eighties, the image of agriculture was damaged by pictures of the grain mountains so popularised by the press. People were influenced by them to such an extent that applications to agriculture courses dropped sharply. As a result, programmes became narrower, mainly attracting people from rural backgrounds.

However, says Professor Ellis, it's all a misconception: "Those mountains don't exist any more. Today's wheat stocks are tiny." And recent years have seen the introduction of new, broader degree programmes. One variant of Reading's basic agriculture degree is agriculture business management, whose graduates may end up working inproperty management or as part of a supermarket buying team.

And, according to Farmers Weekly, women are applying to agriculture courses in larger numbers than ever before. At the University of Wales's college at Aberystwyth, women students now make up 42 per cent of agriculture-related courses. Ellis says this is part of a national trend. Reading has as many women as men on the BSc in agriculture, and more women on animal science and rural management courses. The only course in which men outnumber women is the BSc in agriculture business.

Unlike some other subjects, plenty of agriculture courses are also offered outside the university sector at further education colleges. But this doesn't mean they're easy. "It's a very difficult subject," says Professor Ellis. "It's an applied degree of all the sciences."

Harper Adams University College in Shropshire began life as an agriculture college in the 1890s after a bequest from wealthy gentleman farmer Thomas Harper Adams. Today it has eight BSc and two HND agriculture courses. One of its most popular courses is food quality management, and it also offers agriculture and mechanisation, which includes engineering modules. While applicants dropped during the foot-and-mouth outbreak, says assistant registrar Anne Cleary, things are picking up again and "people are more aware of what they can do with their land, and its recreational uses."

Like Harper Adams, Writtle College in Essex has offered land-based courses since the 1890s. It now has a wide range of degrees, including a BSc in agriculture with business management, and agriculture and the environment. Writtle says in its prospectus that "our classrooms do not have walls", and its agriculture students spend plenty of time outdoors for case-study work and hands-on work experience.

John Vipond, an agriculture lecturer, says that Writtle has changed its courses considerably; they are now more vocational and far more concerned with the environment. "Everything these days has a slant towards sustainability and the environment. Course content now includes issues such as climate change and pollution." Ucas lists 34 degree courses with agriculture as a single subject, but an impressive 1,081 courses on the environment.

The signs are that the students like the new degree programmes. According to Professor Ellis of Reading, there has been a big increase in the number of applicants for agricultural-related courses this autumn. With any luck, they will also get jobs. "All our agriculture students who want a job in agriculture get one," says Vipond, "and they usually get the job they want."