When York-based Askham Bryan College’s Liz Philip and her team made their pitch to take over Newton Rigg College, Penrith, in December 2010 they pledged they would bring back the dairy cows.
Left to right, Newton Rigg Campus principal Wes Johnson, Newton Rigg governors' chairman Alan Bowe and chief executive Liz Philip with Holstein heifers which have recently arrived at Sewborwens.
After the merger of the colleges in August 2011 and with progress at Newton Rigg under principal Wes Johnson far exceeding expectations, that commitment to the £1.9 million investment is beginning to come to fruition.
Full planning permission has been granted for a state of the art 250-cow unit on a greenfield site at the college’s Sewborwens Farm, tenders have gone out for the work, the college is in the initial stages of applying for a grant from Defra - and dairy cattle are arriving.
“Dairying has always been key to our plans for Newton Rigg,” said chief executive Mrs Philip. “The Cumbrian agricultural community was indignant that its college had turned its back on dairying after 2001’s foot and mouth epidemic which continues to fuel emotion.
“It’s fundamental and goes right back to the reason land-based colleges began. It was to feed the nation which is a hugely important task. When you consider that 80% of the population drink milk in some form every day, not to invest in dairying was wrong.”
Embarking on a project of such scale - the £1.9 million includes investment in the dairy cattle as well as the building and fitting out the new dairy unit - has not been undertaken lightly and Mrs Philip has had the backing of the Askham Bryan board of governors as well as those at Newton Rigg, chaired by Alan Bowe.
Also pivotal to the new plans is the knowledge and involvement of Newton Rigg farm manager, a former dairy farmer and pedigree dairy cattle breeder, Jonathan Fisher.
Valuable input has come from hands-on dairy farmers in the county - in particular, Peter Holliday, of Dobcross Hall, Dalston, and Kevin Wilson, of Wood Farm, Thursby and vet David Black, of Paragon, Dalston, who are ensuring the unit will have maximum cattle comfort and minimise disease.
The plans are for two adjacent new buildings at Sewborwens - one a cubicle house with the other housing the parlour, handling and teaching facilities, dry cows and those needing extra supervision.
Observation galleries are planned and the unit will incorporate the latest environmental technology, including solar panels and rainwater collection. The facilities will provide the highest standards of teaching for the next generation of dairy farmers as well as a showcase for the farming community in general.
“The timing of the dairy unit is quite difficult. We would like to get on with it now but we can’t progress until we have had our application for grant to Defra appraised but our aim is to get cattle into the new housing by the spring of next year,” said Mrs Philip. She emphasised that while the unit would be run commercially and sustainably it would also be a project of national significance.
While significant investment both financially in facilities and in enabling the recovery of Newton Rigg has been made over the last 12 months, the portfolio at Askham Bryan has been added to with the purchase of the 340-acre Askham Richard farm.
The total acreage farmed between both colleges is 2,400 acres and once the Newton Rigg dairy herd is re-established 460 cows will be milked on the two sites, there will be 1,400 ewes representing the spectrum of the stratified sheep system, 135 beef cattle and an arable operation offering a wide diversity of educational opportunity for students by sharing these resources.
The revitalisation of Newton Rigg has attracted huge support from the local community and agri-industry and, in turn, full-time student recruitment is up by 33% for the academic year starting in September - an anticipated growth of 50% by 2013.
Two key subjects have been agriculture and forestry. Recruitment on agriculture courses has increased by 315% and forestry, which has been lacking a further education facility for nine years, has attracted a strong student intake.
The college’s target for 2011-12 for students the college receives grant on, was 1,500, however the recruitment is 250 more and this will have positive implications for funding next year. In 2007 the grant was for only 450 students.
Turnover in 2007 was £9.5 million, now it is £25.8 million, quite an achievement for a public sector organisation in a recession.
The college has moved up from a grade 4 in 2009 to a grade 2 Ofsted inspection, one of only five colleges out of 49 further education establishments to achieve such an improvement in the current inspection cycle which Mrs Philip acknowledges is a huge credit to the staff who have been very flexible during the changes.
On the back of this ‘juggernaut’, as Mrs Philip calls it, Newton Rigg and Askham Bryan jointly have 81 jobs to fill, 36 of which are new roles.
Other highlights of the year have included:
• An inaugural grassland event, Grassland North, organised in conjunction with agricultural machinery experts Carrs Billington, which attracted 3,500 people.
• The re-launch of the Newton Rigg Society, spearheaded by former lecturer John Rigg, of Penrith, which attracted 90 people to its first lunch at the college.
• A spring countryside day for the general public which brought crowds of around 2,000 through the gates.
While the new dairy unit will be a major milestone for Newton Rigg, plans are already under way to create a National Centre for the Uplands at the college’s hill farm, Low Beckside, Mungrisdale, in the Lake District National Park.
The college has been successful in its bid to the Prince’s Countryside Fund which will enable the plans to be progressed. Former college head of agriculture and now a governor, Andrew Humphries has been instrumental in these plans.
Now the college is looking to appoint a director for the centre and has employed a new uplands agricultural lecturer Paul Flynn who will be developing a foundation degree and working closely with Mr Humphries on the centre.
In the summer of 2013, some buildings no longer fit for purpose on the main site will be demolished and the site re-developed to further improve the quality of resources.
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