Wednesday, May 22, 2019

College farm forges future for next generation

December 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

Change is afoot at North Shropshire College’s Walford Campus. Simon Wragg reports.

Giving the next generation of young farmers a voice is a priority for Richard Aldis, manager of the 222.5ha (550ac) mixed farm at North Shropshire College’s Walford Campus.

Changes are afoot to improve finances and enhance the students’ outlook and their employability. And it doesn’t take long in Mr Aldis’s company to realise why he could make a difference at the county college.

He brings experience in both running a business for profit and valuing the opportunity to engage with the public having previously run a 263ha (650ac) beef, sheep and farm shop enterprise on the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall estate, Derbyshire.

“I’ve always been passionate about getting farming’s message across but all too often as an industry we are singing to ourselves,” he says.

“The public is keen to engage with farming – we see that at open days and with the popularity of farmers’ markets and shops – but we must have consistency in our message.”

‘Buy British’

Mr Aldis cites the ‘Buy British’ campaign as an example. This, he suggests, sits uncomfortably when most farm businesses are unavoidably driven to plough capital into imported machinery because there are few UK tractor manufacturers left.

Running Walford’s farm presents challenges of equal magnitude.

The nature of education department procurement means that while it can support local suppliers for day-to-day services and inputs, price tendering sees forward purchasing of feed – as an example – sourced via a buying group from outside of the county when other suppliers are closer to hand.

“We are not immune from the need to be competitive and be profitable,” says Mr Aldis. Walford’s farm still has some way to go to get accounts into the black, it is suggested. The need to be an educational platform first and foremost often means college farms have an unavoidable Achilles’ heel to their respective accounts.

But that hasn’t stopped change. In fact, it has triggered it helping enhance the student learning experience. “For example, before my arrival the farm was spending £30-40k a year on contractors to make silage.

“The farm has since then acquired it’s own self propelled forage harvester and students are involved in making first, second, and fourth cut silage. Third cut usually falls in to the summer break.”

Students work alongside Walford’s full-time farm staff who
includes herdsman Chris Fry, assistant herdsman Bob Highton, young-stock intern Charlotte Price, and shepherd Jack Day.

Hands-on experience remains core to the college’s ethos for rural studies education. Students are encouraged to talk through decision making on prospective changes and valued for their input.

“We also see that in a farming forum we have established with local farmers and rural businesses where students are on an equal footing with other participants.”

With about a fifth of North Shropshire College’s 1200 students at Walford studying land-based courses, there is a need to broaden the educational platform beyond the farm gate.

The college itself runs a TMR-fed 230-cow dairy herd using both a conventional 24/24 parlour and Merlin robotic milker to supply local processor Muller. A 300-ewe commercial sheep flock (Welsh Mules put to Texel or Suffolk tups) sees prime lambs sold through Shrewsbury market.

Arable cropping includes 30ha (75ac) of cereals grown for whole-crop feed, 28ha (70ac) of maize, with the remaining area being permanent or temporary grassland.


“We still need to encourage more local farms to take students on for two- or three-week placements,” explains Mr Aldis. “The college has considered establishing pig and poultry enterprises – giving experience of more sectors – but bio-security would be a big issue with the throughput of students.”

Students are also encouraged to get involved in exchanges with European colleges with which Walford has links to experience working on farms abroad. “We reciprocate the arrangement and will have 22 French students here next spring.”

Building relationships is a central theme to the farm’s management. That will be extended further in 2018 with the installation of a self-service milk vending machine aimed at the local public to be sited adjacent to the recently improved dairy.

“Diversification is an old word, but we want students to look at creating new opportunities to help carve out extra income. Not all farm businesses with be placed to take advantage of such schemes but we should encourage students to think outside the box,” says Mr Aldis.

Running a college farm brings very different constraints to the working day. And while Mr Aldis openly says he misses the interaction with the public from the farm and shop he ran successfully, there is little to compare to seeing a student improve in their ability and outlook through time in education.

“It is a real buzz,” he suggests.

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