A student resurgence

A rise in interest in food and how and where it is produced has led to an upturn in horticultural related university and college courses, as Adrian Tatum finds out.

Education is the lifeblood of any industry. Without it there is no direction and ultimately no start in life for the thousands of students looking to pursue a career. Industries also rely heavily on universities and colleges to drive applied research and break new boundaries in development and they are often the places where new ways of working are first developed before they make it to the field or under glass.

In the horticulture sector it has been a struggle to attract students over the past decade partly due to the sectors reputation and also because there is so much else on offer. But times are changing and all of the key educational establishments in the UK are reporting an upturn in student numbers for land-based studies as a result of a renewed interest in locally produced food, produce development and cooking and eating out.

Mysercough College, one of the leading providers of horticultural, food and farming based studies has invested heavily over the last few years in new facilities. “At Myerscough, we have made considerable investment in state-of-the art facilities with a brand new five-compartment glasshouse with both LED and traditional lighting and a CO2 enrichment capacity,” Lara Hurley, Assistant Head of Greenspace and Creative Studies tells The Commercial Greenhouse Grower.

“The glasshouse contains familiar production benches and a variety of irrigation systems, from drip to full bench and high power hoses. We have a variety of propagation facilities such as a large humidity chamber, mist propagation and heated benching that can be used for growing and research. Over in our science section we use our soil science laboratory and micro-propagation facilities and, in conjunction with a Garden Centre on campus, students are able to produce and follow the lifecycle of both edible and ornamental crops for sale to the public.”

Students are involved with projects including traditional kitchen garden maintenance, planting green walls, maintaining tapestry lawns and the investigation of innovative horticultural techniques such as growing moss for use on walls. The college is keen to invest in the industry because it is crucial to the future of food security, production, environmental health, well-being and leisure industries and to facilitate students that cannot be with us all the time we offer an on-line option, according to Ms Hurley. But how does she view the current opportunities for graduates and apprentices in the sector, another area that has seen a recent resurgence. “There is a wealth of opportunity out there. Horticulture is a broad subject with scope for careers spanning different sectors. It is so much more than just gardening. At Myerscough, we particularly endeavour to fill skills shortage in the sector with graduates that have a good grounding in science, production horticulture and amenity, a common question is ‘What can a degree in horticulture lead to?’ Another common issue is relatively low starting salaries for graduates who have just spent quite a lot of money on their education and then find that the industry may not enable them to progress their career in the way they envisioned,” she says. “Recruitment is a problem because horticulture is seen as gardening and such a low skill and low pay occupation. Greater awareness of the range of opportunities for career development within horticulture needs to be better communicated at all levels by the industry and education providers, particularly at secondary school level,” she adds.

Another challenge is making sure that horticulture and other related courses are a real reflection of what is going on in the sector and what is required from a modern horticultural business. “We endeavour to build links with local growers and attend industry events run by bodies such as BPOA and trade shows such as Four Oaks. Visits are seen as integral to our delivery and work experience is an area which we are always seeking to develop,” says Ms Hurley. Elsewhere, Warwickshire College, which incorporates the well know Pershore College continues to invest in its facilities too. Pershore has been considered as one of the ‘centre’s of excellence’ for horticulture for many years. In 2017 it was granted £500,000 of funding from Worcestershire LEP to create the Agri-Tech Research Centre (ARC). “This will undertake research specifically into issues that affect the growers in Worcestershire so that innovation and research can help support growth in the food production sector in the region,” says spokesman Kieren Bodill. The ARC facilities include a research and teaching laboratory specialising in development of diagnostic technologies to support integrated disease management systems. Indoor vertical farm utilising LED lighting to facilitate improved growth and yield is also available and a 3D protected system applying the latest in hydroponic science and technology to investigate improved yield of horticultural crops. Recent research projects have focussed on onions, strawberries and brassicas, all of which are key products of the region. “Pershore College very much believes in the future of the land based sector. We know how rewarding and exciting it is and the changes in the industry – including the use of drone technology and high tech equipment – make it even more vital that young people be attracted to the industry,” says Mr Bodill. “AgriTech encompasses a huge range of job opportunities from growing to packaging and marketing. For apprentices again there is enormous opportunity with many employers offering excellent management training programmes to fast track young talent. The opportunities are there but it seems we all need to do more to attract young people into the industry.

Pershore also works closely with the industry to ensure it stays relevant. “Our excellent relationship with the LEP means that we get input and advice from industry groups in terms of the skills needed and the focus of future developments. WCG Apprenticeships also has an excellent relationship with regional businesses such as AgCo and Midlands Regional Growers to ensure the skills taught are the ones the industry needs. The transferable skills needed for a real world role are something that we teach across the full range of our courses,” says Mr Bodill. But what will it take to attract more home-grown horticultural talent in the future? “All industry stakeholders have got to work together to excite young people about the opportunities in the industry which include ‘hard science’ in terms of research, land-based engineering, drone technology and all aspects of the food production supply chain. It is such a rewarding career choice and we are working to get that message across,” says Mr Bodill. Pershore College holds an Industry Day with the theme of Field to Fork – exploring the opportunities of AgriTech and horticulture. It will have industry partners and interactive sessions for the schools who are attending – exploring all the stages their food goes through before it reaches their lunchboxes. The college has also recently launched a new level 3 Extended Diploma in Agri-Technology (Food Production and Plant Science) as part of a suite of new Agri-Tech courses planned for the future.

“It is a challenging time for the sector, particularly with the potential impact of Brexit, but we are finding that this is encouraging more people to partner with us to do something about it,” he adds.

One of the other leading educational organisations is Hadlow College, which offers a comprehensive range of horticulture, agriculture and land-based courses. The college has recently spent £1.5 million on a new 1,500 sqm glasshouse at its Court Land campus. The Venlo structure is divided into compartments, one for tomatoes, one for peppers and some research areas for other student projects. In a nod towards the more emerging technology side of the sector there is also a vertical salad growing area. Similarly, significant investment has also taken place at Cheshire-based Reaseheath College, which opened its National Centre for Food Futures & the Environment, which includes a glasshouse at a cost of £8 million. Plumpton College will also have a new horticulture centre in East Sussex which will give their students the opportunity to work in a commercial unit with modern growing facilities.

At Scotland’s Rural College there has been a recent good example of why horticultural research departments within universities are so important. Recent research at the college revealed that many Scottish farmers do not see food waste as a major concern and therefore struggle to estimate losses through food waste on-farm. In Scotland, levels of waste are estimated to be between 20-50 per cent for vegetables and 1-15 per cent for soft fruit, with pests and disease, weather, supply and demand and cosmetic specifications – strawberries, for example, must be between 25-45mm in length – among the main reasons for food going to waste. Following research funded by the Scottish Government, the Scotland’s Rural College says an official recording of statistics and agreed definitions of what constitutes food waste would help future initiatives.

Improving relations between farmers and retailers is also “crucial” to reduce on-farm losses of edible produce. The college offers a number of horticultural, agricultural and land based studies.