Farming feature: Land college comes full circle

EU project

EU project - Credit: Archant

Easton and Otley College joined forces back in August 2012. Part of the new mission and strategy of the college is to promote agricultural courses to a new generation, to counteract the lack of people who are coming into the industry. NEIL RIDLEY is the current rural commercial co-ordinator for the college and has worked with the Otley campus – in an agricultural context – since 1991. Here he explains how things are going.

Neil Ridley

Neil Ridley - Credit: Archant

I initially came to the college over 20 years ago as a stockman looking after 60 sows, 120 ewes, 30 to 40 cattle and 60 milking goats.

After about a year and a half, I started lecturing as part of my job.

In 1997 I was then asked to work on specific project work with the aim of supporting training and education in agriculture.

For example, thanks to gaining funding – predominantly from the European Social Fund (ESF) – I would go into farm businesses to teach new recruits and juniors national vocational qualifications, and farm managers at higher levels. (At that time – this kind of training in farms was relatively new).

I also worked on creating European exchange programmes where – for example – students would go over to Sweden or Denmark to gain work experience.

The big advantage for students working in places like Sweden is that it’s a very similar political and agricultural system to the UK.

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Although going to places like Italy (which did happen) was interesting from a knowledge point of view, it didn’t allow our students to see how other countries tackled similar issues to us.

Today it’s gone full circle now that the college has successfully merged.

For example, we have recently won a £100,000 bid to send students to Sweden (the Czech Republic and Finland) over the next two years.

Students on the Edge Apprenticeship scheme (an educational and industry led partnership that aims to get 300 new recruits into farming by 2015) will be eligible to go on these excursions if they would like.

The fact that it has gone full circle at Easton and Otley - on a personal level - is very pleasing as agriculture is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

I always feel that agriculture has been around for hundreds of human generations. Education has been – on a state basis – for about eight generations.

So having worked in both, it’s very interesting to reflect that Otley was founded on an agricultural bequest that was left in 1909 (by the Felix Thornley Cobbold Trust) and although we might have moved away from our roots during that time, inevitably the roots pull you back to your core - which is agriculture, horticulture and land-based education.

Now that we have combined our campuses, there is a possibility for Easton and Otley College to think strategically about what we are going to do.

As a result of this, we’ve engaged in a £3m development on the Otley campus to support our new vision of supporting the agricultural sector of East Anglia.

We are building some mighty sheds for sheep and beef livestock, machinery activity areas and modern facilities.

If you combine this with the 250 hectare farm at the Easton campus, then I feel confident that the rising generation of students who come and study with us will have everything they need to be a success in industry.

Within this, I also enjoy reflecting on the rising generation as a more mature member of staff.

When I was training, we didn’t have computers or mobile phones, tractors went at 15mph and cost about £5k and had 60 horse power.

That’s all changed. The average tractor today for example travels at 40mph, has 200 horse power and costs about £130k – and that’s just in my lifetime.

The new generation coming through will be retiring when the new King George is on the throne – if things work out.

Quite what’s going to happen between now and then is anybody’s guess – but as long as we get the basics right in terms of education and training our students – both now and in the future – they will be able to adapt to the changes.

We are also incredibly keen to continue to build links with industry and it’s quite interesting that the fact that Suffolk and Norfolk are working together (in terms of Easton and Otley), always comes up.

I suppose really – when you look at our cultural inheritance, Norfolk and Suffolk have always been joined at the hip.

You can go back to Anglo-Saxon times and it’s always been the Kingdom of the East Angles. The linkage of the North Folk and South folk of East Anglia is hundreds of generations old.

I love our agricultural inheritance, you have people like Thomas Tusser who wrote in the 1500s a poem called 500 good points of husbandry – he life was spent in both Suffolk and Norfolk.

The work of Arthur Young, a Suffolk great from Bradfield Combust.

And Lord Townshend and Thomas William Coke (or Coke of Holkham) in Norfolk positively helped both counties (and the rest of the world) during the agricultural revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.

George Ewart-Evans was also a great influence on me. He wrote an oral history of farming in East Anglia using Tusser quotes for his book titles. He was born in Wales, lived in Suffolk and taught in Norfolk.

Going back in times of yore, in many respects, East Anglia was an island.

So I’ve never seen the two counties as being separate.

Personally speaking I was born in Suffolk and grew up in Norwich. And if truth be known, if you scratched an awful lot of Norfolk and Suffolk people, they would say they are from East Anglia – particularly when talking to somebody who didn’t know the United Kingdom very well.

So when you look at the culture of East Anglia we are completely intertwined.

Just perhaps not at Portman Road and Carrow Road – and even that seems to be more friendly banter more than anything else. Both teams have good times and bad times.

In terms of Easton and Otley College, I’m very optimistic that in terms of agriculture and everything else, we can look ahead to lots of good times.

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