With agriculture growing, is taking on an apprentice the way to go?
For young people considering agriculture as their future career, the opportunity to study and earn at the same time can be an attractive option.
Apprenticeships offer this combination, where young people can attend college for one or two days per week and earn a wage by working for the remaining time.
Agricultural apprenticeships were launched in 2003 and their popularity has grown since.
Many agricultural colleges now offer apprenticeships, providing classroom and practical learning opportunities. The colleges will often have good links with a range of agricultural employers so those who are not working on a family farm can find employment.
Easton and Otley College, East Anglia, has seen the number of agricultural apprenticeships increase from just 20 in 2007, to 130 today.
In response to the increasing demand, the college launched its EDGE initiative in 2013 in partnership with Anglia Farmers, Atlas Framlingham Farmers and with support from the Cobalt Trust.
Ellie Sweetman, agricultural apprenticeships programme leader at the college, explains the background to the project.
“We recognise the need for new blood to come into agriculture, so the apprenticeship scheme promotes the employment opportunities available in food and farming to children in schools.”
Almost half of the college’s agricultural apprentices are not from a farming background, Ms Sweetman says, so it is vital the college is able to match them with suitable employers.
“We are looking to build the three-way relationship between the employer, the apprentice and the college, and we also hope to reach new prospective employers.”
For apprentices new to agriculture, the college offers a pre-apprenticeship programme so students can gain the skills and experience needed to take up employment on-farm.
More than 90 per cent of apprentices remain in agricultural employment after they complete their course, she adds.
“It is rewarding when we see former apprentices, who perhaps struggled at school, taking on responsibility and progressing in their chosen career.”
The success of the apprenticeship scheme, especially for those who do not choose to pursue an academic route, is mirrored at colleges across England.
At Duchy College, Devon, apprentices eligible to join the Level 3 advanced apprenticeship can choose a specialist sector programme.
Unsurprisingly, given the prominence of the milk sector in the county, the college’s new Dairy Apprenticeship has proved particularly popular.
The partnership between Duchy College, Colliton Barton Training Centre and Mount Vets Farm Practice offers apprentices one day of teaching each fortnight, providing intensive tuition and practical learning, focusing on all aspects of herd and health management.
Piers Pepperell is a partner at Mount Vets Farm Practice and has been instrumental in developing the programme.
He recognised a need for this type of continuing education because he saw many ‘bright young people in agriculture’ who wanted to learn more but not necessarily in a conventional classroom situation.
Mr Pepperell believes the Colliton Barton Training Centre has been pivotal to the scheme’s success as it features a working farm, a well-equipped training room, a laboratory and a post-mortem room all in one location.
He says: “We lecture for a maximum of half an hour and then make sure the apprentices are actively doing something for the rest of the day.
“In one session we might look at calf housing and I use smoke bombs to demonstrate how the air moves in a calf hut so we can discuss ventilation. I want the apprentices to go back to their farms and reconsider what they are doing and why.”
Mr Pepperell hopes the apprentices will be willing to consider new ways of doing things which might be easier, more effective or cheaper and highlights key points from each session.
“I emphasise three important facts at the end of each day which I want the apprentices to go away and remember. Hopefully this will help them to build systems on their farms which will prevent disease,” he says.
A range of speakers, such as nutritionists and Dairy Co specialists, are invited to teach the apprentices other important areas and Mr Pepperell hopes the programme might be replicated elsewhere in the future.
“The course works very well and the apprentices seem to enjoy it and want to be here. I hope we are teaching them to be better herdsmen and what they learn will enable their farm businesses to be more successful.”
Duchy College’s dairy apprenticeship was an obvious choice for 17-year-old Sarah Cann. Sarah has been relief milking for three years and also works on her family’s farm.
She says: “I did not want to stay on at school and my father works away from the farm, so the apprenticeship enables me to take on more responsibility at home on-farm and continue learning.”
Sarah prefers to learn in the workplace, rather than classroom and she describes herself as ‘a hands-on person who learns by doing’, rather than from paperwork.
Being with like-minded young people is also important to her.
“We are all passionate about dairying and keen to learn and share ideas with each other.”
For Sarah, all the topics covered in the dairy apprenticeship have been relevant to her role on-farm and she can relate these lessons to the day-to-day challenges she faces.
“The subjects we cover during the apprenticeship allow me to see the cows in another light.
“The programme has made me realise how important the little things are and how attention to detail can make all the difference,” Sarah says.
Askham Bryan College, North Yorkshire, offers Level 4 higher apprenticeships aimed at those in agriculture who are already in a management position but want to develop their skills and knowledge further.
Lindsey Wedgewood, Askham Bryan College’s advanced and higher apprenticeships course manager, says their courses are designed around students.
“Almost all the course material is covered during the time spent in lectures at college, so the students have very little reading or ‘homework’ to take away.
“Most of the information and evidence we ask them to collate during their studies will be directly relevant to their typical working environment. For example, we might ask them to take soil samples or look at a particular aspect of the management of their farm.”
Mark English has just completed his higher apprentice course at Askham Bryan. For him, deciding on an apprenticeship arose from a change in his circumstances.
“I worked as a builder for 10 years but during this time I always enjoyed working on the farm with my grandfather. When he offered me the opportunity to farm with him, I jumped at the chance.
“I needed a better understanding of the business management aspects of the farm so I looked at the higher apprenticeship. The course was tailor-made for me and gave me the confidence to make decisions,” he says.
Mark now runs the 162-hectare (400-acre) family farm near Ripon, North Yorkshire. It is mainly arable, growing winter wheat, barley and oilseed rape but Mark also fattens lambs from a flock of 200 breeding ewes.
“I admit I am not someone who does things ‘because they have always been done that way’ so the opportunity to stand back from the farm was very useful.”
“The apprenticeship has given me an understanding of why things happen and work as they do and now I think I have the knowledge to ask the right questions of people I work with.”
Mark’s knowledge of agronomy and soil management has improved dramatically as a result of his apprenticeship and he puts this to good use.
“Now, when I am walking the crops with my agronomist I can spot the first signs of disease and weigh up the advice I am given. I sample soil regularly and this has shown we do not need to apply so much phosphate and potash to our ground. This saved £1,500 in the first year.”
Mark also enjoyed mixing with the other apprentices and says he learnt from them.
“Everyone on the course has a slightly different farming background, so I get to learn about other enterprises from them. Recently, I decided to start with some cattle on our farm, initially just on a bed-and-breakfast basis but I hope to buy-in my own calves eventually.”
Mark’s experience as an apprentice has inspired him to learn more and he acknowledges it has been ‘by far and away the best education’ he has had.
“There is so much information and technology out there for farmers these days and most of it is free. I want to take advantage of it and I am never afraid to try out new ideas.”
Level 2: Intermediate apprenticeship Suitable for school leavers who wish to pursue a career in agriculture. Equivalent to GCSEs
Level 3: Advanced apprenticeship Equivalent to A-levels and aimed at those who have some management responsibility on the farm. Many colleges offer sector specific Level 3 programmes
Level 4: Higher apprenticeships Equivalent to an HND/C or the first year of a foundation degree. These are aimed at people who are either already in a farm management position or those who will soon take on the management of a farm or enterprise