Ian Burnett has had a proud career in agriculture.

Key points:

  • Agricultural colleges are disappearing, with a growing number closing their doors
  • Alumni say the colleges played a vital role in shaping their lives and careers
  • They also say the colleges offered students “skills that made you employable” and “hands-on experience in the paddock” 

He has built up a family business running beef cattle and growing crops and has a strong history of involvement with AgForce Queensland since its establishment in 1999, even serving as its president from 2012 to 2014.

Like many others who’ve found success in the agricultural industry, Mr Burnett attended an agricultural college, specifically the Emerald Agricultural College in Central Queensland.

Last week, he joined a special cohort of students to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the college, as a member of its inaugural class.

“Those experiences, I suppose, ignited an interest and later I was wanting to get involved in industry representation and put something back into the industry I was working in.”

But despite the important role that agricultural colleges have played in the lives of many students like Ian, their future in Queensland remains uncertain.

First class Emerald Ag College

The first students to attend the Emerald Agricultural College (then known as Emerald Pastoral College).(

Supplied: Ian Burnett and Julie Lancaster

)

Dropping enrolments

Several agricultural colleges around the state have closed their doors in recent years.

Queensland Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Mark Furner said falling enrolments were to blame.

“With the lack of students that have gone through those colleges over the last couple of years, that’s why we made a decision to re-purpose these into other initiatives,” he said.

Those include the recently announced Central Queensland Smart Cropping Centre, which will be based at the Emerald Ag College.

He said funding that used to go to these colleges was being directed into TAFE colleges and universities.

“We’re invested in this budget [as we were] in the lead up to the 2020 election in terms of training in TAFE colleges,” Mr Furner said.

“Putting your eggs in one basket isn’t appropriate these days.

“You need to make sure you cover the field in terms of training and the needs of this sector.”

However, he said that the use of Emerald Agricultural College for other training in the future has not been completely ruled out.

Ag colleges still have a place

Christina Harris was one of the most recent graduates of the Emerald Agricultural College, prior to its closure in 2019.

2015 Emerald Ag College students

Christina Harris (right) with friends Haddie Morowitz and Josh Foggarty. (

Supplied: Christina Harris

)

She graduated in 2015 with a dual diploma in agriculture and agribusiness management.

Ms Harris has since worked in contract mustering, as a ruminant nutritionist for a stockfeed company, in administration for a livestock agency, and is now about to start studying a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness at university.

“The big selling point behind going to ag college was the fact that we were going to be learning in a classroom and then going outside into the paddock to be able to back up the skills and the theory that we’d just learnt.

“You needed to have skills that made you employable and you also needed to have the theory to understand why these skills were so important.”

Practical skills key

Ian Nicholas is another member of the inaugural class of the Emerald Agricultural College.

He grew up on a family cattle property and continued to work cattle after graduating from the college, which his younger brother Craig also attended.

Ian and Craig Nicholas

Brothers Ian and Craig Nicholas both attended the Emerald Ag College.(

ABC Rural: Ashleigh Bagshaw

)

Mr Nicholas said the practical skills he learnt during his time at the college were essential for allowing him to work on the land later in life.

Graduates like John Heelan also believe the college is critical to encouraging city people to take up careers in the bush.

He now owns a property near Clermont in central Queensland, but grew up in Brisbane.

“I wasn’t fully off the land when I went to the college — [I was] more of a city boy — but it certainly put me in good stead for later life what I learnt there,” Mr Heelan said.

The future of Queensland’s agricultural colleges uncertain
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