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Techno-tweed: food sustainability and agritech at the RAU

Louis Coiffait visits the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) outside Cirencester, which is on a mission to help the agri-food sector get high-tech and global after Brexit.

Louis was an Associate Editor at Wonkhe.

Nestled on the southern slopes of the Cotswolds, fancy gates and a tree-lined avenue lead you into RAU, with a cricket pitch on one side and crop trials on the other.

As you arrive at the 25-acre main campus you’re greeted by Victorian Tudor-style buildings in lovely yellow-gold Cotswolds stone. The central courtyard is popular with drama producers and was turned into a Cornish marketplace for series two of the BBC’s Poldark.

Originally the independent Royal Agricultural College, this “first agricultural college of the English-speaking world” was founded in 1845, with funds entirely raised by public subscription, largely from the wealthy landowners and farmers of the day. It was established due to a lack of government support for education, in order to meet the needs of land-based industries and to improve agricultural productivity. After Queen Victoria granted RAU a Royal Charter, in 1852 Prince Albert became the first of its successive reigning-monarch patrons.

RAU first received state funding from HEFCE in 2001 and gained university status in 2013. Today the patron is the Queen, with her eldest son the university’s president. Rebecca Simpson, the events coordinator, explained how the royal connection can open doors and help represent the university externally, especially overseas.

The land on which the campus stands was leased from the Bathurst family for over a century and RAU has retained close links since its founding. Today Allen (9th Earl) Bathurst, is a vice-president of the university and sits on its governing body. The Bathursts live in Cirencester Park, a nearby country manor.

The original 16th century farmhouse became the first principal’s house and now hosts the high-beamed Tithe Barn where the students’ union hosts a bar every Wednesday and Friday.

On my tour, Rowena Cotterill, the admissions officer, pointed out the 30,000-book library (with some dating from the 16th century), the new biomass boiler, and recently-built student halls.

RAU’s motto is Arvorum Cultus Pecorumque, a quotation from Virgil’s Georgics meaning “caring for the fields and the beasts’. It also has its own prayer.

Kemble train station is a seven-minute drive in one direction.

With the East Gloucestershire market town of Cirencester – the “capital of the Cotswolds” – seven minutes the other way. Oxford, Bristol and Bath are all less than an hour’s drive.

Roman Cirencester (Corinium) flourished with the local grain and wool trade, becoming the second-largest city in Britain. Around 240 acres were enclosed by the city walls in the 2nd century. The people of Norman Cirencester fought for “freedom of the borough” with the Abbots of Cirencester Abbey from 1117 until 1539 when Henry VIII ordered the abbey’s demolition. Yet even then the town was passed to a new lord of the manor. The English Civil War saw 300 local deaths and 1,200 pro-Parliamentarian townsfolk imprisoned in Cirencester church. Democracy finally arrived in Cirencester with the 1894 Local Government Act, establishing the Urban District Council, its first independent elected body. A two-tier system was established in 1974 with Cotswold District Council and Cirencester Town Council.

In the early 20th century the area became a centre for the Arts and Crafts movement. Today, major industries are tourism and farming. Cirencester was badly affected by the floods in 2007. The population is about 21,000 with famous locals including Pam Ayres and Dom Joly.

A small, specialist university

There are about 1,200 RAU students across thirty courses, including agriculture, animal science, business and enterprise, environment, equine science and management, farm management, food production, supply management, real estate, and rural land management. About 200 of those students are postgraduates and about 180 are international – from 45 countries. An additional 600 are studying at level 4 through eight partner colleges. Some people clearly want a small university community, and RAU’s evolving course offer is in high demand around the world. Sarah Tennant-Bell, the general manager of the RAU students’ union, outlined the five-year plan, which includes fundraising and volunteering to support a range of charities, including putting an allotment in a women’s prison, an on-site student-run shop, and an award-winning enterprise programme.

Famous graduates include the Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland Simon Coveney, presenter Jonathan Dimbleby, entomologist Eleanor Anne Ormerod, poet Dwijendralal Ray, Cotswolds MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, and numerous politicians and sports people from the UK and beyond. Dimbleby, whose first ever article was the sole entrant to RAU’s 1964 journalism competition, returned last year to host Any Questions at his alma mater. RAU has also been involved in the Big Feastival, Cirencester Fleece Fair, and Countryfile Live.

As you would expect, many students on agriculture and land management courses are born into farming families. But others choose to farm for a career or lifestyle change, often after a successful career elsewhere. Some have small holdings or hobby farms and want to learn the ropes. For example, RAU’s graduate diploma in agriculture is attracting increasing numbers of mature career-switchers (20 of the latest intake), often from the armed forces or the City. Other students are self-employed so study part-time. £12m of RAU’s £20m income comes from tuition fees.

When it comes to regulation, small and specialist institutions can be forgiven for feeling that the current market is a rigged game, rather than the level playing field promised. They have all the same duties and requirements as larger peers, but fewer resources to service them – meaning the proportion of income (and of student’s fees) spent on regulatory compliance is far higher. This can create burdens that feel unrealistic, with one RAU senior leader talking of them being “hobbled” by shifting national metrics and regulations. Uncertainties created by Brexit and government policy changes only exacerbate the risks and discomfort.

Although size can limit resources, RAU continues to grow and to secure research funding – for instance with a Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF)-backed knowledge exchange strategy and a Catalyst-backed initiative to promote sustainable practices and policies in the sector. It has plans to expand to at least 1,500 students by 2020.

At lunch, after I remarked on the number of – what appeared to be – mature students, Julie Walkling, the “out and proud” Director for Students explained that the university is “sweating its assets” outside term time while the students are away. RAU hosts an eclectic range of events and conferences for organisations including: the University of the 3rd Age (currently on-site); the Sun & Moon festival; a Harley Davidson rally; a Wolesley rally, a Buddhist society; and, the Arthur (of Gilbert &) Sullivan Society.


It’s perhaps too easy to criticise the diversity of institutions that specialise in the land-based sector, given the people who typically work in the field (so to speak). Courses such as land management have a pedigree of white, male students – the farmers, landowners and gentry of old. Changing that is a classic chicken and egg problem, with the history, culture and careers associated with such courses tending to attract a certain demographic, and repel others. The issue isn’t really helped when such providers are set against the entire sector in national league tables and benchmarks. Given their course hinterland, how well can they compete on diversity with larger, metropolitan and more general institutions?

The RAU’s efforts to widen access seem to be paying off though, with its percentage of state-school entrants increasing to 62% in the 2017-18 academic year – up from around half in the previous cycle. But the diversity challenge is not just about class or race. Many rural communities in the UK are poor and white, with educational underachievement and limited social mobility. The challenge there is often how to raise aspirations. One of RAU’s lecturers, Navaratnam Partheeban, is a leading campaigner for the eradication of prejudice in the veterinary and agriculture sectors. Let’s see how OfS’s new approaches to access and participation treat institutions such as RAU.

Commonwealth countries, particularly in Africa, have historically supplied more white farmers, but that’s changing too. For example, the oil and agri-food businesses of Nigeria demand students with different backgrounds and skills. This means new opportunities for institutions such as RAU.

RAU’s access and outreach has recently been brought in-house and a compact scheme has been launched to focus on targeting prospective students better. It offers a range of bursaries and scholarships, with two new funds to launch next year with a specific focus on widening participation. RAU is also part of two National Collaborative Outreach Programme consortia, GROWS and Study Higher. It was involved in 200 activities across 40 schools last year.

RAU also works with eight partner colleges – validating courses at Askham Bryan College, Berkshire College of Agriculture, Bishop Burton College, Cirencester College, Kingston Maurward College, Plumpton College in East Sussex, and Wiltshire College. And recently franchising courses with Capel Manor College in London. The latter partnership sees RAU’s expertise helping to develop urban farming across the country, reconnecting city-dwellers with food, farming and the rural economy. The range of foundation, top-up and bachelor’s degree courses aim to provide flexible progression routes for people across the country. Many of those wishing to join the land-based sector are reluctant to travel, preferring to study while at home or working, at least initially. Many are the first in their family to enter higher education.

RAU is part of the national Schools Farm Network Education Alliance, which explores school-based farm learning, hosting the inaugural conference last year. It’s also involved in the growing interest in city farms across the UK, in partnership with the charity Social Farms and Gardens. RAU’s a member of Agrespect – the rural LGBT+ network – and recently appointed one of its co-founders as a governor.

Rising to challenges

In 2016 Joanna Price became the first woman to hold the top job at RAU.

A vet by training, she spent a number of years in clinical practice in the UK and overseas, before entering research and academia. Her work in biomedicine focused on how bones regenerate and adapt to mechanical loading. Before joining RAU she was head of Bristol Veterinary School.

Born in Wales, after comprehensive school Price got a scholarship to study at the uniquely international and experiential Atlantic College, a private sixth form college in the Vale of Glamorgan and one of a global network of United World Colleges.

Price explained that the university had contributed to the land-based sector for more than 170 years. Writing in The Times recently, she said that diversifying RAU’s intake is the best response to Brexit, likening the challenges now facing Britain to those after World War II.

Her father studied at RAU after being awarded a grant for ex-servicemen. Having left school at forteen she believes it provided him with a “transformational” education.

Currently, Michael Gove’s “Green Brexit” agriculture bill that’s going through Parliament is a focus, with RAU outlining the risks and opportunities in its response to February’s “health and harmony” consultation, and showing him its work during his visit in November. RAU is well-placed to help the land-based sector embrace new approaches to managing land and the food supply chain, to enable increased productivity while ensuring the welfare of habitats, animals and rural communities. It’s an important business given projections of ten billion people needing feeding by 2050. Maybe that’s why agritech is listed as one of Chris Skidmore’s key responsibilities.

RAU’s successful £1.1m Catalyst funding bid aims to nurture the next generation of agri-food/tech leaders, equipping them to also influence policy. It forms part of a £2.5 million project in partnership with the University College of Estate Management, and the Countryside and Community Research Institute based nearby at the University of Gloucestershire. The funding will see the creation of new industry-led programmes, with the specific objective of positioning the university as a thought leader post-Brexit, and of producing innovative graduates who can confidently think strategically and manage change. Looking at issues such as global food security, the programme will be blended, offering full and part-time distance-learning, two-year accelerated degrees, MBAs, and a new policy MSc.

Working with industry

RAU has a long history of working with a range of industry partners, from Waitrose to Barclays. I hear about a “virtuous circle” with students, graduates and staff taking internships, secondments, research placements and jobs in the sector. Price explains that teaching is designed to develop graduates who are work-ready and have core attributes like leadership skills, digital literacy and business skills – such as understanding a profit and loss statement or a budget. Small-group teaching supports this, with the focus beyond technical skills and upon graduate-level employability, albeit within an intrinsically practical sector.

RAU has a network of employers keen to take on placement students. Such opportunities can help students develop industry knowledge and learn about different professions. Two of the most popular courses, agriculture and rural land management, are now supplemented with practical opportunities to learn animal science, business, environmental science, equine science, farm management, food production, and real estate. There are equine and business-related courses too, as well as a one-year unaccredited farming course and a graduate diploma.

RAU not only attracts students from around the world but many go on to work overseas too, for example in food production in sub-Saharan Africa, high tech flower farms in Kenya, or food security in China. RAU jointly teaches a postgraduate distance-learning course in China on sustainable food production. The intention is to nurture a new generation of thought leaders and policy influencers for the rural economy, in the UK and beyond.

The deputy vice chancellor, Lucy Meredith, is currently undertaking a curriculum review to ensure RAU’s courses are industry relevant, including how to develop digital and tech literacy among students and staff.

Size isn’t stopping RAU taking on some big future challenges, from climate change to urbanisation. Its knowledge exchange strategy features a policy forum, startup accelerator, innovation workshops and a knowledge hub to support farmer-led innovation so the industry can navigate the changes and uncertainties that come with big global challenges. The project aims to make RAU a centre for developing evidence-informed policy and strategic thinking. RAU is engaged with other stakeholders such as the National Farmers’ Union, joining debates about localism, climate change, livestock diseases, sustainability and re-wilding.

RAU is also planning to expand its CPD offer nationally, especially in farming and land management. Its Rural Innovation Centre offers sixty-seven different practical, industry-facing courses teaching rural skills, including lambing, blacksmithing, chainsawing, welding, one-cay calf rearing, quad and tractor driving (and maintenance), hedge laying and dry-stone-walling. Most of these short courses have professional accreditation (e.g. from Lantra, BASIS and NPTC City & Guilds) and are flexible, attracting not only RAU students but others from the land-based sector. Courses are also delivered to organisations such as the Cotswold Conservation Board, Natural England, The Wildlife Trust, local councils, schools, farmers and agronomy companies. There’s also a new course for a one-year farming certificate. These courses are informed by research and in turn inform further research.

But for RAU it’s not all about getting funding for blue skies research, with a greater focus on farmer-led trials and innovation funded by industry. This can be a cheaper and more effective way to improve efficiency and stimulate innovation, with the agri-businesses that get some of the benefits helping to foot the bill.

Price explained that we are in an era demanding new agricultural and environmental policies, with the government’s financial commitment and vision for the land-based sector unclear. The question of food self-sufficiency is as important as it’s ever been. Given 38% of our sheep and lamb is currently exported to the EU, should post-Brexit Britain aim to import food or grow its own? What will the delayed immigration white paper mean for farm workers? MI5 famously says that a country is only ever four meals away from anarchy. But does either the UK’s politics or economics currently value public goods such as air quality, soil fertility, or drinking water? What does the arch-Brexiteer and current (at time of writing) Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove want the sector to do? Should we be stockpiling tins of beans before March?

Applied research, global links

Consultancies and think tanks love to churn out reports on various global grand challenges. Sustainable food production generally appears in the top five, especially when environmental, demographic and political trends are factored in. Where will people’s food come from post-Brexit or once sea levels start to rise?

This year RAU received a £2.2 million endowment from the John Oldacre Foundation so it can continue to support crop-science related PhD students – such as Zimbabwean Pedzisai Nemadziba who is currently working on soybean trials. Other notable RAU research projects include looking at land values in London boroughs, natural flood defences, antimicrobial resistance and equine nutrition.

RAU is building its industry links and research capabilities further, developing its two working farms, livery yard and vineyard. I visited one of the former – RAU’s Harnhill Manor Farm – to find out more. Purchased in 2009 it covers 1,223 acres with a mix of arable and livestock. On arrival, you’re greeted by a (student-built) dry-stone wall marking Prince Charles’ 2013 visit to the farm.

Inside you find a cutaway version of a Perkins 1006 tractor engine, perfect if you’re taking the course in tractor maintenance.

Janatha Stout (centre right below) is an alumna of RAU and now works with industry to help inform course content, mentor students and progress graduates to employment.

David Main, Professor of Production Animal Health and Welfare (centre left below) meets me at the Rural Innovation Centre. He was the first appointment under the RAU’s Catalyst programme and is ensuring the new courses have clear industry benefits – particularly around animal housing conditions, antibiotic use, and supply-chain efficiency.

Agronomist Nicola Cannon (far right above) showed me the different crop trials currently taking place at the farm. Experiments in mechanical weeding include the “Robocrop” which uses a camera to steer between plant rows. Students often use these trials for dissertation research projects. And over 100 farmers attended “Mechanical Weeding Live!” in May, where they could see all the weeding tech in action, as well as the results of the controlled-weeding experiments.

The latest data available for each field is available in an app on her phone, with information coming in from GPS-equipped tractors, drones and satellite imaging.

The farm is trialling different crop rotation systems simultaneously, taking a holistic approach that includes everything from soil science to carbon sequestration. RAU’s a sector leader in carbon reduction and sustainable practices. Its long-running soybean trial is exploring the viability of making it a sustainable large-scale crop in the UK – as the majority of UK soya is currently imported and mostly genetically modified. As we talked somebody was taking a tractor-driving lesson in the background.

Out the back is a cattle shed, whose friendly young residents are the subject of Emily Edwards’ PhD (far left in the earlier image). Edwards initiated the Buitelaar calf-rearing project, which works with people in the dairy industry to co-create more humane, efficient and innovative practices. For instance ensuring sustainable markets for dairy beef products, in particular reducing the killing of young male calves at birth and instead making it possible to rear them for high-welfare dairy beef. Emily is also looking at systemic approaches to using fewer antibiotics in herds. Hundreds of male calves have been involved with trials at the farm over the past two years.

The farm is also a member of the sustainable and holistic Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) approach to integrated farm management.

The aim is to deliver efficient and profitable production which is economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally responsible, by integrating natural processes with modern farming best practices. Often this involves combining old well-established practices with the latest technology, cutting out some recent – but misguided – methods.

Sadly, I didn’t get to meet either the farm’s 350 sheep or its 150 organic pigs as they were further afield (sorry), though I learned only 5% nationally are certified as organic. I also noted the secure fencing everywhere, apparently to keep out badger-borne tuberculosis, which the team explains can be combated through good farming practices. There’s also a large beetle bank at Harnhill too, established as part of the university’s higher level steward scheme to protect habitats, including those of insects that feed on crop pests.

I hear how investing in home-grown data and technology solutions can help UK businesses meet global challenges through innovation and efficiency, for instance using the internet of things, drones, robotics, biotech, and big data. Talent needs to be attracted to careers thinking about the future of food and land. Postgraduate research and development, accompanied by new leadership skills, will be needed to help meet future demands. Sustainable resource management will only become more important. Questions are raised about whether future REF funds will support applied research, not just “purist” basic science. I hear that fields such as agriculture, supply chain, animal husbandry, and nutrition need exploring and developing further.

I met Andrew Hemmings, Head of the Equine Management and Science School, whose research is developing useable equine innovations to support horse health, wellbeing, and performance. This includes looking at horse psychology by analysing their brains, which are closer to humans than rodents. This enables a research approach which uses equine behavioural data to inform the human neurosciences. For example, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) occurs in both species, as evidenced by stereotypical behaviours such as crib-biting. By developing a human model based on insights from horses, he and his team are developing solutions that could help both.

Fostering an entrepreneurial food sector

RAU has always worked with the agricultural industry to help improve its efficiency and productivity. But innovative new agribusinesses and farms are needed like never before. There are also opportunities to diversify existing land-based businesses in line with changing food consumption and climate. RAU’s 17,000 person-strong international alumni network sees its graduates managing big estates and leading companies around the world.

The 11-year old student enterprise and entrepreneurship programme helps students work out whether they can create a viable business from their ideas, using the university’s “Think It, Try It, Launch It, Grow It” model. Students are supported with mentoring, funding, start-up camps, expert advice and guidance, hot desks and meeting spaces, competitions, awards, placements and trading opportunities – including pop-up shops and markets, on-site and off. RAU is also involved with the local Cirencester Chamber of Commerce.

Katy Duke, Head of Enterprise at the university said that so far 48 student entrepreneurs have successfully launched, from making flour made from crickets (BiJimini), to extra virgin rapeseed oil (Cotswold Gold).

The annual Grand Idea competition is judged by business leaders including Levi Roots of Reggae Reggae Sauce (a long-term supporter and mentor) and Julian Dunkerton of Superdry.

One recent winner, Alex Dunn, won Agriculture Student of the Year at this year’s Farmers Weekly awards, with her farm safety app. She has now secured a scholarship to work on a New Zealand dairy farm.

Another previous winner is Muddy Wellies, a social enterprise established and run by RAU students since 2007 selling a range of craft ales and ciders at outlets across the Cotswolds, as well as at the union bar and the RAU shop. 10p per bottle goes to the First Steps Fund which provides small grants to student start-ups, with £95,040 raised in the decade 2007-17.

The Alliston Centre is RAU’s new home for Farm491 (for agritech startups), and the Cirencester Growth Hub (for developing Gloucestershire businesses of any type).

Money from the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) has helped Farm491 get going over the last three years. It aims to work with at least 55 new agritech companies over the next five, providing 100 desk spaces, high-spec facilities, expert support, and access to 1,213 acres of farmland for research. RAU also provides access to its global network of alumni and partners. The target is for over 200 jobs to be created over five years. Launched businesses include Batchseed – a food provenance app, AOX – an online trading platform for agriculture, and AgriSpectral – a “precise” farm-drone technology.

Farm 491s has incubated 12 businesses over the past three years, including: Horse Logic – which improves equine wellbeing and performance; Raw Energy – which develops renewable energy assets; and Multibox – which produces low-cost insects for fish and animal feed.

The Growth Hub is co-funded with the European Regional Development Fund and GFirstLEP from the government’s local growth fund. Its one of several such hubs across the region. It provides facilities and support, encouraging connections between researchers and rural enterprises.

Down a rough country road, RAU’s Down Ampney Vineyard has been used since 2016 to teach students about viticulture, vineyard management, grape varieties, wine production, marketing and finances, right through to “hands-on” experience of cultivation and picking. This aims to give them a holistic view of the whole wine production process, from grape to bottle.

The summer heatwave brought a record harvest, producing 15,000 bottles from 40 rows of vines over 2.6 hectares. Tony Norris the Farm Manager, proudly told me that Cotswold Hills 2016 Dry White Wine had won the Bronze award from the International Wines and Spirits Competition and is nominated for this year’s Rural Business Awards. In addition, £1 from every bottle sold through this social enterprise goes into the RAU’s First Steps Fund.

I left RAU with some award-winning Cotswolds Hills Wine and Cotswolds Hills Honey, produced and marketed by students. I also left feeling reassured about the future of our rural environments and communities.

One response to “Techno-tweed: food sustainability and agritech at the RAU

  1. Eleanor Anne Ormerod was not a graduate of the Royal Agricultural College/University, as incorrectly stated above. Female students were not accepted until 1979. However, she was a ‘special’ lecturer on entomology at the College 1881-84.

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