Sector trends

NI agriculture outlook: skills for the future

Northern Ireland’s agri-food and rural enterprise sector is developing business skills fit for the future thanks to cutting-edge education and financial support.

Our guests

Deidre Cooper, Senior Adviser Student Recruitment, CAFRE

Nicola Warden, Biodiversity Technologist, CAFRE

Skills for agriculture, food, equine and horticulture

The agriculture sector is one of the largest employers in Northern Ireland and produces a gross output of an estimated £2.43bn each year.

Deidre and her team at CAFRE liaise with schools around Northern Ireland, and attend career shows in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, to raise awareness of the varied opportunities on offer. There are three campuses: Greenmount (near Antrim), where most of its agricultural courses are delivered alongside horticulture, land-based engineering, veterinary nursing, and floristry; Loughry (near Cookstown), which specialises in food production, food technology and food innovation; and Enniskillen, which specialises in equine and work-based agriculture.

As a biodiversity technologist based at Greenmount, Nicola plays a central role helping to test new technologies for implementation on farms. This involves bringing farmers and students to CAFRE’s state-of-the-art facilities to showcase innovative technology in practice.

She also works with the CAFRE Hill Farm Centre, which gives students and farmers hands-on experience of effective upland and hill land management practices with a focus on the integration of livestock and environmental management.

Deidre says there’s a huge interest in an agri-business career among boys and girls right now, with around 700 to 800 students beginning a CAFRE course this autumn.

Whether it’s the first rung of the ladder on a Level 2 certificate, or an honours degree in sustainable agriculture awarded by Ulster University, students work directly with businesses in agricultural and land-based industries while learning how to adapt and make the most of opportunities. The colleges have a learning-by-doing ethos, and 92% of students are in jobs or further study relevant to their qualifications within six months of graduating.

Lifelong learning

They say knowledge is power and some of those already working in the agri-food sector continue their own lifelong learning through a variety of channels. Farmers, growers, and those in food processing have access to group training, benchmarking, and continuing professional development in areas such as sustainability, resilience, or productivity.

Cormac says: “With good graduates entering the agri-food sector and ongoing development of those already employed, it makes for a highly skilled workforce. As a bank with a significant footprint in both primary agriculture and in food processing, we take great comfort in knowing the sector is supplied with good, well-trained people. CAFRE has strong links with industry and responds well to meeting industry needs.”

Sustainable agriculture

Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots recently confirmed three areas of focus:

  • recognising the role of active farmers in adopting sustainable production practices
  • creating conditions that will provide encouragement for young people coming into the industry
  • driving up efficiency levels across the industry

Deidre says interest in CAFRE’s new sustainable agriculture degree is high and the students on this course will learn all about things like sustainable crop production systems, sustainable pig and poultry production, sustainable ruminant production, as well as biodiversity, flood alleviation, air quality, water quality and carbon.

There are modules on future challenges for agri-food, including climate change, supply chains, animal welfare and Brexit, as well as innovative ways to enhance and manage sustainable farming practices and production.

A project launched in 2009 to develop biodiversity potential around the Hill Farm area shows the power of collaboration to help solve issues, adds Nicola. The Glenwherry Hill Regeneration Partnership includes organisations such as the Irish Grouse Conservation Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds NI along with additional board members and neighbouring farms. They work together to protect at-risk species and maximise outputs from the CAFRE Hill Farm.

New ideas and innovations

Deidre describes Ulster Bank as a great supporter of CAFRE. And as the next generation of agri-food students come through, they will be finding solutions for countrywide challenges, not just farms and livestock.

CAFRE technologists like Nicola continue to disseminate ideas and innovations happening around the world that might impact Northern Ireland. From dairy to grass, if these can be tried and tested at CAFRE’s farm and prove successful, they can then be rolled out to industry. As Deidre says: “Agriculture is a big part of our lives. People always say that everybody’s one, maybe two generations from the farm. We’re demonstrating new technologies all the time. If a farmer or student takes one thing away and applies it in their business, then we have success.”

Ulster Bank is ready to offer support to farmers, through funds available to lend as well as team expertise. For more information and insights on agriculture, visit Ulster Bank.

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