Agriculture courses back in vogue at third-level colleges
Rise in demand for food and farming courses is broadly based and not just a reaction to the recession
Sarah Claxton grew up on a farm and always loved the idea of farm work, but she was discouraged from following her father into the business on the grounds that it wasn’t financially prudent. Photograph: Mary Browne
As Leaving Cert students prepare to collect their results this week, increasing numbers will be hoping to bag a place on an agriculture or food course. Recent CAO statistics show these courses have experienced the steepest rise in demand in 2013, up by 10 per cent.
Secondary school students eyeing up an apparently jobs-rich sector have pushed up CAO points for entry to farming courses. Seven years ago, 315 points would have secured a place in the UCD school of agriculture and food science, but that has since jumped to about 450.
For September 2013, the school received 4,217 applications, a 65 per cent increase when compared to 2003. “Students . . . are seeking out programmes where there are likely to be very good opportunities,” says Prof Alex Evans, UCD dean of agriculture.
However in recent years a trend has emerged which has seen mature students also turning to farming, often as a change of career or study because, while employment has been drying up in other sectors, farming is still perceived as a growth area.
Large employment announcements, such as Kerry Group’s decision to create 900 new positions (based on cutting-edge development in R&D and innovation) in Naas, create obvious appeal.
There is now “huge interest in issues such as how our food is produced, what’s in our food, food provenance, food safety, how producers and consumers organise themselves, and how they interact with one another,” says Dr Olive McCarthy from the department of food business and development at UCC. Her colleague, Prof Paul McSweeny, has also noticed “a drift for many years towards more students from non-farming backgrounds in our programmes”.
Áine Barry from Cork city lives in Dingle, Co Kerry, where – among other things – she is developing a cosmetics line using locally harvested seaweed. The route that led her there though was a circuitous one.
She studied arts in UCC back in 1996 and, from there, did a Fás computer course, after which she decided to embark on a career in media. She landed a temping job on the newsdesk of the Financial Times in London and went on to work in the newspaper’s graphics department.
Five years later she had had enough of the bustle of central London and decided to return to Ireland. She headed to Dingle, where she worked as a massage therapist for a few years. During that time she became intrigued by the entrepreneurial and community spirit in Dingle and other rural areas.
“I really could never get that out of my head,” she recalls. “I became more interested in rural issues and farming life, how people sustained their livelihoods and how they coped with the adversity from the recession bringing further challenges like emigration and poverty.”
She went back UCC in 2009 to take a master’s in rural development, food marketing and co-operative organisations, basing her research thesis on Dingle and the entrepreneurial activity in the region since the onset of the recession.