Land-based colleges are exploiting green issues by teaching a range of new and traditional skills says Neil Merrick

Ofsted inspectors visited Easton College last month, and were bemused to find it running a course for reed and sedge cutters. The course, an NVQ in environmental conservation, was launched in September after the Broads Authority in Norfolk warned that the local thatching industry faced a shortage of skilled workers.

Building thatched roofs is a highly specialist task. Most workers are in their fifties or older, and it's hard to recruit younger people.

In spite of the fact that the inspectors had not come across such a course before, they were full of praise for the way Easton, a land-based college near Norwich, has moved into a new area and responded to local need.

Seven students aged between 17 and 25 are taking the course, which also covers carpentry, welding, estate management and tourism. "They are getting a range of skills that will be useful to them as self-employed workers," says the college principal David Lawrence. The students, who receive bursaries from the Heritage Lottery Fund, spend four days a week with the Broads Authority and one at the college.

Lawrence is pleased that his college is helping to protect the environment as well as training new workers. "Unless we manage the reed beds, we will lose the natural environment. It will revert back to scrub."

Easton is one of 31 further or higher education institutions that are members of Landex, a private company set up earlier this year to promote quality in land-based training while encouraging diversification into new fields.

Howard Petch, Landex's chief executive and a former college principal, says trainers must respond to rapidly changing labour markets. "It's about encouraging colleges to generate income but it is also about reputation and credibility," he says. "Through a process of innovation and diversification, we are seeing a move towards multi-functional agriculture with wider diversity of land use."

Easton runs courses in poultry husbandry and works closely with Norwich City Football Club. "Where we have diversified, it has transformed the institution," Lawrence adds. "It's become a much more vibrant place with a wider range of students."

Petch does not necessarily disagree with the widely held perception that agriculture is in decline. But so long as colleges recognise commercial reality, they should be able to generate new business while also reflecting the green agenda.

More than 160,000 students enrol on land-based courses each year. Many further education colleges are making increasing use of biofuels and biomass - the growing of crops to produce energy.

"We are seeing a measure of renewal as we look at major issues such as climate change and food production," Petch adds. "I would like to think that colleges are partly responsible for that and in part leading it."

Duchy College in Cornwall is saving an estimated £400 a week after switching most of its transport fleet to reconstituted vegetable oil or chip fat. Duchy, part of Cornwall College, buys about 10,000 litres of biofuel from an outside supplier each week, and expects to save more money by growing oil-seed rape within the next 18 months.

The principal, Andrew Counsell, says the use of biofuels and biomass is being embedded in the curriculum, with other green themes. Students who study issues such as greenhouse gases are putting pressure on the college to increase recycling. "They're increasingly motivated because they see it happening around them," he says. "The students are saying that we should be doing more."

Some colleges run significant commercial enterprises. Plumpton College in East Sussex produces wine, while Reaseheath College, Cheshire, makes cheese, ice cream and yogurt. Moulton College, Northamptonshire, has a dairy and specialises in waste management.

Dave Alderson, marketing manager at Sparsholt College, Winchester, says courses in animal management and veterinary nursing are among its most popular, while fisheries and game-keeping have gained a new environmental focus.

The college has moved into sport by running programmes for outdoor activities instructors. "We train people in a range of activities in the countryside and on the coast," Alderson says. "We train them how to run businesses."