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Studentship Opportunities with Fruit and Nut
   

Agriculture for Climate Change: Land Rehabilitation and Small-scale Fruit and Nut Growing

The single most critical issue facing humanity during the next fifty years will not be war or even energy (though that will be of major importance) but food security. The reality is that global food production, as currently configured, is simply unsustainable. Production is predicated almost entirely upon the easy availability of fossil fuels, upon unlimited water being available for irrigation, on intensive monocultures that require chemical solutions to the ever-increasing threats posed by pests and diseases, and on an ever-expanding land area under cultivation. Moreover, it presumes that the global climate will remain stable, something that climate science informs us is extremely unlikely. Indeed, even the most cursory examination of contemporary climate literature leads to the inescapable conclusion that global food production will peak then crash. Moreover, the potential difficulties of maintaining global food supplies will be further compounded by a rising world population and also by the trend towards resource-hungry diets typified by the fast food culture.

Food security in the future will not be based on the filling of supermarket shelves with products grown and transported from thousands of kilometres away, but on the ability to produce a high proportion of food requirements relatively locally, and at a low cost in finite resources, particularly fossil fuels. The contemporary dairy and meat-heavy diets will have to be replaced by ones that make better use of limited land resources. Through necessity, meat and diary production will have to be banished from the best agricultural land, severely downsized, then redeployed on marginal land or reconfigured in mixed agricultural systems where animal grazing is combined with tree crops. All of this will happen within the lifetime of people alive today.

While fruit adds vitamins, minerals and diversity to the human diet, compared to staple tillage crops such as wheat or oats, its calorific value, weight for weight, is very low. Nuts however provide lipids and also carbohydrates, have a high calorific value, and could have an important role to play in future food security. Moreover, nut crops can often be produced on land considered unsuitable for tillage.

With this perspective in mind, the nursery is offering part-time studentships in Land Rehabilitation and Small Scale Fruit and Nut Cultivation, commencing September 2015. The emphasis will be on optimising the role of tree crops in local food security, post climate change, post oil. The studentships will run for 13 months (one month overlap between years), with the possibility of an extension for a further 12 months.

The studentship is very different to any state accredited courses in horticulture. Some of the differences are listed below:

The timetable is configured to reflect the demands of the horticultural year. Consequently, students are required to attend more days during the busiest times. There is no long break during the summer months. However, there will be a break of approximately 4 weeks from mid December to mid January.

The timetable is flexible and can be configured to fit around students' other commitments.

Teaching ratios are very low: as low as 1:1 and never more than 6:1. This makes it possible to provide individual mentoring on a level not achievable in conventional courses, which may have as many as 40 students in a class. In some respects, he mode of instruction has more in common with the first year of an apprenticeship at a fruit nursery during the early-industrial era. In those days, when enterprises like Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth (1725-1985) were at the forefront of fruit development and research, generations of apprentices learned how to become gardeners then master gardeners. However, while those early apprenticeships tended to be based on strict social hierarchies and rigid command structures, the Fruit and Nut studentship is structured to encourage student autonomy and individual initiative.

Most of the course is hands-on. Classroom instruction will comprise approximately one tenth of the total work time.

Although the duration of the studentship is only 13 months, the time horizon underpinning it is considerably longer. At the very least, students should be looking ahead at least twenty years.

One of the unfortunate trends in the teaching of horticulture is the emphasis of theory over practical work. The typical horticulture course provides only 100-200 hours hands-on practical experience per year . It is completely unrealistic to expect such a frugal exposure to the soil will offer much in the way of insight or knowledge of growing crops. While theory and classroom knowledge have a role to play in learning about working with the land, they can never be a substitute for the real thing.

The traditional nursery apprenticeship of former times offered a much more comprehensive education. In a single year, an apprentice might gain ten or fifteen times as much practical experience as the student on a modern horticulture course.

The studentship offered by Fruit and Nut attempts to find some middle ground: structured hands-on work focused on a specific range of plants combined with the minimum of classroom-based theory. About ninety percent of the instruction will be of a practical nature.

Students are required to attend the nursery 2-10 days per month. The scheduling of the days will be weighted more towards the spring, summer and early autumn, approximately as follows:

Month Days
September 2016 (introduction)
2
October 2016
8
November 2016
4
December 2016
2
January 2017
2
February 2017
6
March 2017
8
April 2017
8
May 2017
10
June 2017
10
July 2017
8
August 2017
8
September 2017
8
October 2017
6
Total
90

The total number of days over the whole thirteen month period will be around 90. The scheduled start date - late September - has been chosen to coincide with the beginning of harvest time for many species of nuts. The studentship will run through to the end of harvest time of the following year. The cornerstone of the studentship will be the student's chosen project (see below).

Dates and the scheduling of working hours will be flexible in order to accommodate students' other commitments. The year is divided into four terms, each corresponding to one season of the horticultural calendar. During the studentship students can expect to gain 450-500 hours hands-on experience.

The course will be integrated into the day to day activities of the nursery, in particular the research side of the nursery. Although modest in size, the nursery carries the largest range of nut trees to be found anywhere in Ireland and one of the largest ranges of fruit trees and berries. It is one of a very small number of enterprises anywhere on Europe's Northern Atlantic fringe currently carrying out research into nut production. The nursery has regular contact with growers in many other European countries, and has advised on projects as far away as Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The nursery's location in the far west means that it is outside the part of Ireland generally considered suitable for production of nuts (see below) or fruits such as pears or plums. However, in terms of opportunities (to examine the absolute limits of climate for nut or fruit growing) the nursery's location is actually an advantage.

Map of Ireland showing regions with climate suitable for cobnut production

Map of Ireland showing regions with climate suitable for walnut production

The nursery is situated on a piece of very marginal land (bog/flood plain on which thousands of tonnes of subsoil and stones were previously dumped). There are additional constraints of high rainfall and exposure to Atlantic storms. At first appearance, the site appears completely unsuitable for development of any culture of fruit or nut growing but it is gradually being converted into a fertile oasis. The nursery is an on-going experiment in land rehabilitation and micro-climate modification. Although the site covers only one hectare site, the nursery contains a variety of distinct microclimates and micro-topographical features including sheltered southeast-facing terraces, windswept elevated aspects, a wintertime flood plain and lowlands prone to late spring frosts!

Learning will focus on understanding the particular soil, climate, topographical and other requirements of fruit and nut trees, including propagation and maintenance. Related topics will include development of new varieties, integration with other land uses and associated research. The realities of climate change and finite resource depletion, and the implications for global/local food security, will provide a broader reference point. Each student will take on a particular project, either the development of a trialling site (either at the nursery or elsewhere) for a particular fruit or nut, or alternatively a broader land-rehabilitation or micro-climate investigation project at the nursery.

Of course, sustainable agriculture is not a new idea. Throughout humanity's very long history of tending plants - a history that may well have started with the management of formerly wild fruit or nut trees - there has been a continual trade off between short term needs on the one hand and long term sustainable practices on the other. Where civilisations crashed, it was nearly always due to a failure to properly manage food or water resources in the face of changing circumstances. Such challenges have been a reoccuring theme through human history. The spectacular food successes of the last half century that have helped keep famine at bay have only been possible because of the availability of cheap energy. But now, the depletion of fossil fuel resrerves combined with population growth, climate change and degredation of land resources means that a major global food crisis is inevitable.

It is unlikely that modern capitalism, with its emphasis on short term profit, on profitability over human needs, will offer much in the way of solutions. Instead, solutions will have to be community led.

The studentship is aimed at students who wish to embrace the methodological approach to sustainable agriculture and food security, who want to become involved in the finer details, for example recording the date when walnut trees first flower, plotting the success rate of grafts carried out in different temperature regimes, the incidence of disease according to different treatments, or perhaps test some of the more esoteric biodynamic practices to see whether any change in outcome can be detected or whether such practices just distract from techniques that are already known to work. In terms of investigation, nothing is ruled out, but resources are scarce. We want to establish not only what works best, but what is replicable elsewhere.

Consequently, the intended outcome of the studentship is to provide the student with the confidence, knowledge and skills to continue their personal development in some aspect of sustainable horticulture, whether in employment, further training or working on their own projects. There will also be an option to continue studying and working at Fruit and Nut, post-studentship, as a full time apprentice.

Intending students should be self-motivated, be able to study/work unsupervised, have some previous horticultural experience and a good level of physical fitness.

There is a course fee of 900 (equivalent to 10 per day of the studentship), 500 of which is payable in advance and normally non-refundable, to cover administration and other infrastructure costs. The balance is payable by 31st March. The fee may be waived/refunded in circumstances of financial hardship.

Interested persons should contact the nursery by email, and provide a brief CV. Prospective students will be required to attend an informal interview and complete a two day period of volunteering at the nursery. Priority of places will be given to people under 30 years of age.

Students unable to start in September 2016 but wishing to start before September 2017

Intending students unable to make the start date this year but who do not wish to wait until September 2017 before commencing the studentship, may begin the studentship at the end of March 2017 instead. The studentship will be reconfigured to run for 15-19 months (depending on the student's preference) in order to encompass two flowering and/or two harvest periods. Depending on the duration of the studentship, the total number of days will be 100 -120. The course fee will be remain at the same nominal rate of 10 per day.

Further information

Students with Special Needs

From 2017/18, the nursery hopes broaden the scope of the studentship to include students with physical disabilities, including non-sighted people. The studentship would be tailor-made to suit the student's individual requirements. Interested persons should contact the nursery.

Image: the lower field at Cooloughra. The land is part of a flood plain extending westwards towards Westport. The Cooloughra site is the only land in the whole valley to be tilled. Although the site was been inundated with flood water numerous times during 2015 and the early part of 2016, extensive drainage work has helped reduce possible damage to trees. The beds in the middle of the picture are lined out with young nut and fruit trees, while the new beds are to be used for trialling and research purposes. The periphery of the field is planted out with cobnut trees, now in their fifth year.

Course Director: Andy Wilson

Andy Wilson is the founder of Fruit and Nut Nurseries, a not-for-profit enterprise dedicated to research into food security and related issues. The nursery is also a vehicle for exploring alternative trading mechanisms (for example stable-state economic systems that are not predicated upon interest being levied on debt).

Andy’s background includes more than thirty years hands-on experience working with the land, the last eight years of which have been fully occupied in the development of Fruit and Nut Nurseries.

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