Field studies: a modern approach to running a farm

Agribusiness Masters programmes are helping farmers adjust to a new rural world order. Steve McCormack reports
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The Independent Online

It’s been a tough couple of months for Britain’s farmers, with not one, but two outbreaks of foot and mouth reminding everyone of how the industry was devastated when the disease swept the country in 2001 – and the first ever appearance in the British Isles of bluetongue, an ailment also lethal for livestock. But, serious though these outbreaks are, they are essentially short term phenomena. Far more critical for the future of British farming are the fundamental jolts that the economic foundations of agriculture have received during the last decade, producing changes threatening agriculture’s very existence as a business. And it is here that some business schools have seen an opportunity to play a part in helping the farming world adjust to the new rural world order. “For several reasons, farms can’t produce in isolation any more,” explains Dr Morag Mitchell, course leader of the MSc in agribusiness management at Aberdeen Business School, part of Robert Gordon University (RGU).

“One of the factors is the increasing competition from supermarkets, which, with the benefit of international transport and lower labour costs, can bring food into the shops in a way that couldn’t be done a few years ago. Beef from Brazil and grain from America are two prominent examples.”

Among other changes hitting the agriculture industry, and covered by the MSc, are the reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which had stabilised farming across Europe for decades; rapidly changing consumer tastes and expectations; and growing environmental pressures. And that’s before climate change is included in the equation.

“So, increasingly the farms need the advice of consultants who understand the wider policy issues,” says Mitchell. And those graduating from Masters courses like hers are just the people moving into these advisory roles, here and overseas. The course, she says, is aimed at “anyone who needs to get up to date with national, international policy and global issues affecting agriculture.”

The Aberdeen programme, which can be done in one year full-time, or two years by distance learning, is a collaboration between RGU and the Scottish Agriculture College (SAC) where Mitchell is based. Each institution is responsible for half of the course content, the SAC handling the specialist agriculture and food modules, with RGU providing the generic management components. At all times the perspective is global, taking in European, North American and developing world issues, and the role of the World Trade Organisation.

Teaching is mainly classroom based, but there are also frequent visits to farms and rural businesses in North-east Scotland, and an annual study tour further afield. Last year, the group visited the Royal Agricultural Show in Canada.

More than 500 miles south of Aberdeen, within easy reach of the sea air blowing in off the English Channel, is the location of another business school-led agribusiness Masters programme. The village of Wye, near Ashford, is the site of the University of Kent Business School’s MSc in agricultural economics. The campus, which has its own farm, used to belong to Imperial College, London, and was home to its Masters course. But Kent Business School took over the site and the course last year: a move that underlined the growing importance of business disciplines to agriculture education. The course literature says the aim is to give graduates the essential skills to build a career as an agricultural economist, opening up positions as consultants, in government or with non-governmental organisations in the industry.

Kent’s reputation as the Garden of England, and proximity to the coastline of France, where agriculture remains a political issue almost constantly on the boil, ensures the CAP features prominently in discussion sessions on the course.

The most recent CAP reform, signalling the gradual end to the system where farms receive subsidies based on production levels rather than consumer demand, is causing pain and forcing adjustments to business plans across the continent. Understanding the area is central to the course.

“I tell them a lot about the CAP, how it’s evolved and what reforms are now being made,” explains Dr Sophia Davidova, the course director. “This provokes discussion between the Europeans, with first hand knowledge of the policy, and those from other parts of the world. These sessions are really productive.”

Other core modules of the course examine the interconnection of government policy and regulation, and the practical economics of producing food.

A recent graduate of the course is current PhD student Mohamud Hussein, who did the MSc after working for 10 years in the food processing industry.

“I realised I wanted to explore the economics of food safety from the academic perspective,” he explains. He found the course content highly relevant to the changing realities of food production and its passage through the marketplace to consumers.

“I think the agricultural economics teaching is changing, for example taking in areas such as how EU price setting is being challenged by the recent development in international trade agreements.

“Similarly, in food safety and standards, there’s a trend to move away from traditional policy making approach led by experts and politicians, to a more pragmatic approach where consumers are in the equation.”

Like the Aberdeen course, Kent’s MSc also contains significant study of rural economies as a whole.

“We deal with rural areas in general, and don’t look at them as agricultural areas, per se,” says Davidova. This recognises the reality that, in the future, there’ll be a need for experts in overall rural land management, specifically where former agricultural areas are given different primary uses – often linked to recreation and leisure. The increasing demands of legislation to protect the environment, the effect that climate change is having on the physical landscape are both central themes here.

Sharing space on the Wye campus are students on the parallel Masters, the MSc in food chain management, which focuses on every stage of the journey made by farm produce as it’s transformed into an item of food being eaten by a consumer.

And there’s particular expertise on hand within Kent Business School in the shape of the Centre for Supply Chain Research. Here, among other things, academics are trying to develop more sophisticated ways of using real time buying habits of supermarket customers to fine-tune food production at the farm.

All postgraduate courses of this nature in the UK attract students from all over the world, Malawi, Kenya, Poland and Mexico being just some of the countries represented by recent participants in Kent and Aberdeen.

And there’s a similar mix about to start on the one-year MA in business management at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester.

“The course covers the entire process, from field to plate and everything in between,” explains Gail Young, the college’s head of admissions. In addition to the core content, each student also chooses two specialist modules, from a list including farm management, food and agribusiness and wine management. And in a sign of the times, maybe, wine management has already been chosen by 50 per cent of this year’s students.

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