Monday 23 October 2017

Learning curve: demand for ag college places plummets

The agri-education sector is beginning to focus on the farmers of the future

John Smith, Meath farmer and final year agricultural engineering student at Tralee IT, adheres to cultural tradition by driving a tractor in slippers while on placement on a farm in Hidaka, Hokkaido, Japan
John Smith, Meath farmer and final year agricultural engineering student at Tralee IT, adheres to cultural tradition by driving a tractor in slippers while on placement on a farm in Hidaka, Hokkaido, Japan
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Demand for ag college places has plummeted as the economy picks up, while concerns mount over the suitability of the education on offer.

The latest CAO data reveals that total preferences for traditional university honours degrees in agriculture or horticulture-based courses has dropped by almost 30pc from 3,163 applications in 2015 to 2,328 this year, while first preferences dropped from 657 last year to 483 in 2016.

Total preferences for level 6 and 7 ordinary qualifications in agriculture or horticulture has declined from 2,259 in 2015 to just 1,677 this year. First preferences for these courses have also fallen significantly from 735 last year to 528.

Tony Pettit, head of education at Teagasc, said the downturn in full-time courses has been expected and that previous demand was "unsustainably high". However, he says demand for part-time and distance education courses is consistently strong.

"Demand in recent years has been extraordinarily high, against the grain in ways, but it is moving down and we expect it to move down again this year," he said.

"For full-time courses, whether it's in higher education or further education, we have peaked and you're back to a more normal kind of scenario. We won't know until September exactly how it'll pan out, but it should have happened maybe a year or two earlier," he said.

Reasons cited for the downward spiral include: improvements in the economy, opportunities in engineering and construction and a surge in apprenticeship demand.

Mr Pettit said the deepening farm income crisis has also been a contributing factor. "It was a fairly difficult climate for farming this year and that's probably having a small affect as well," he said.

Teagasc are very involved in young farmer education and have set up a special advisory group to assess the state of the country's agricultural academic sector. The national body providing integrated research, advisory and training services to agriculture and the food industry are questioning whether programmes are "fit for purpose" for the next 30 years.

"We're looking really at what is in our control on the education programmes, and the future as the farming sector is changing. We're flagging where we need to go," said Mr Pettit.

Teagasc's recently published the Technology Foresight 2035 report, highlighted the surge in new technologies and challenges coming on stream for farmers across many different fronts."We're trying to examine the skills and knowledge that people will need to be equipped in if they are entering the farming sector and associated sectors down the road," he said. The review will also consider the duration of courses, appropriate qualifications, classroom balance versus practical instruction, and work-based learning.

The Teagasc education strategic vision project will run for a number of months, inviting submissions from organisations, stakeholders and individuals on what business skills, typical knowledge and soft expertise will be needed to manage farms of the future.

"What is right for now, and may be very well developed and very suitable for today, but will it be adequate in the future?" asked Mr Pettit.

Edmond Harty, CEO and technical director of Dairymaster, a milking equipment manufacturer, is also a member of the steering group reviewing the agri-education sector.

With herd numbers destined to rise, Mr Harty said farmers need to be prepared to manage a bigger business. "You mightn't necessarily recognise the need to change but you have to start looking at things differently as farm business expands.

"My view of the future of education is that you're going to have your typical agricultural courses like today, but at a broader level, you're also going to have a lot more online input, technology, software development, sales, marketing, engineering, nutrition and all those areas," he said.

Mr Harty said future farmers will reap huge financial benefits from having a third-level qualification. "For a farmer producing milk from 100 cows, if he can get his somatic cell count down from 300,000 to under 100,000, there is a gain of about €18,000 per year to be had. That's serious money, the knowledge is all there, some are adapting, but we need to get all farmers to take action on it," he said.

He says fertility technology must be maximised, pointing to the success of Dairymaster's MooMonitor, a device that goes around a cow's neck to measure fertility and health. "Every time you miss a cow in heat, it means that cow is going to calve three weeks later, the pattern gets spread out and economically there is a cost of €250. People may think it's okay to miss a cow in heat when herd size is very small but if herd sizes grow, that's where the technology will come in. Adapting adds to the bottom line," he said

Brendan O'Donnell, registrar at IT Tralee, said demand for ag engineering remains "consistently high". Current trends also suggest that growing numbers of students are more interested in pursuing careers within agri business rather than farming. "The reality is the number of farmers is dropping and we must have enough for what we require down the track," he said.

Experience of a lifetime in Japan

Driving a tractor in slippers has been a strange new challenge for John Smith, a young farmer from Meath on placement in Japan, but overall it has been "the experience of a lifetime".

The 21-year-old, who is a final-year agricultural engineering student at the Institute of Technology, Tralee, has been based on a stud farm, in Hidaka, Hokkaido, for six months. The Oldcastle native is mainly doing mechanical maintenance, fixing machinery and tractors and helping his Filipino co-workers to top meadows and look after horses.

However, his computer-aided design skills have come in handy. John recently drew up the designs for a show arena on the grounds. "They had a rough sketch just on paper but they didn't really know where to go next so it was nice to have something official to offer and they built the arena based on my CAD design," he said.

As the stud farm is owned by an Irish man, John says "the set up is quite western". However, getting used to the climate has been a challenge. "From December to April, the place was covered in two feet of snow. But, unlike Ireland, everything keeps going here. They put the snow tyres on their vehicles, everyone has four-wheel drive and everybody just gets on with it," he said.

Managing grass growth has also been difficult. "The grass here grows much quicker than at home so you're constantly topping and sharpening your blades. There are rice farms everywhere and they are all based beside rivers because they have to flood them," he said.

He added that all local farms in the vicinity are family run and very small at around 20-30 acres. "It's all old people working on them. At home you'd see boys going down the road drawing silage but over here it's quite poor, they use different machines like side mowers and cut the grass down to the butt. They have no other choice so that is strange to see. Obviously the bigger farms have equipment that is way ahead of Ireland," he said.

Another big change has been driving a tractor in slippers. "The Japanese tradition is you take off your shoes when entering a house. In the tractor you have a little box to leave your boots. You put on your slippers and work away," he said.

"Everything has a value here, no matter how old or battered. That's what I will bring home with me, a greater appreciation that anything can be recycled. It's been the experience of a lifetime, it's opened my eyes and will make me a better farmer and be more economical about how to use machinery," said John who will continue his diverse agricultural studies in the UK in September.

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