Considering what a vital part farming plays in the Cumbrian economy, for it to have no dedicated agricultural college would seem to leave a massive gap in skills provision in the county.

However, this is just the prospect it is facing with the closure and proposed sale of Newton Rigg College, near Penrith.

Founded in 1896 as The Cumberland and Westmorland Farm School, the college provided land-based education for generations before becoming part of Askham Bryan College, near York, in 2010.

However, last year, Askham Bryan announced it would close the college and sell off the campus alongside its two farms at Low Beckside, in Mungrisdale, and Sewborwens, Penrith.

Local campaigners have battled to try and block the sale, with former Workington MP Lord Dale Campbell-Savours telling the House of Lords it was being sold “to pay off Askham Bryan College’s escalating debts”.

Askham Bryan has strenuously denied these accusations of asset-stripping and, at the time of writing, the college was set to close this month. (July)

However, Newton Rigg Ltd - formed by local people and experts in land-based education to try and save the college - is still working on potential strategies to preserve land and facilities at Newton Rigg for educational use. The organisation is also launching ‘NR Training’ to offer courses in Cumbria later this year and apprenticeships in 2022, laying the foundations for a new college in future.

The training offer is being led by Andrew Counsell, a Newton Rigg Ltd director and former principal of Duchy College, in Cornwall, and Dr Jane Sullivan, an educational consultant and director of Newton Rigg from 2015 to 2018.

Andrew says the first step is establishing a school of horticulture providing training on the Lowther Estate.

Although this training will initially not be accredited to any specific training organisation, it is hoped it can be in time.

"We hope from this September we'll have probably upwards of 50 students based at Lowther for a year doing a range of courses,” says Andrew.

Within a year it will then apply to the Government to offer apprenticeship training by 2022, starting with agriculture, horticulture, agricultural engineering and forestry and expanding to other areas of land-based education in the future.

In the meantime Andrew says it will also work with City and Guilds to get training courses accredited by them.

In addition, it is also setting up a Group Training Organisation, which will work with rural businesses to create courses to suit their needs. In time, it hopes to create a rural business school focused on preparing people to work in the land-based sector.

"It's about producing a quality product for the people of Cumbria," says Andrew.

This training would be delivered on-site at farms and other land-based businesses around the county, with Newton Rigg as the hub if ambitions to retain use of its assets succeed. Once the groundwork is laid, Andrew says it will be able to apply to create a new further education college.

"By rebuilding land-based education in this sustainable way we have the opportunity to create a college truly led by industry, led by the people we're looking after,” he says.

"And those businesses can help us, we would hope that they would supply us and allow us to use their facilities so that learning is integrated within their business.”

At present the project is being supported financially by a number of benefactors, but it is hoped it will become a viable business through fees paid by students, as well as Government funding for apprenticeships and from other training organisations, charitable trusts and businesses.

Local donors currently include Carlisle-headquartered Carr’s Group and the Westmorland Group of businesses, which includes Tebay Services and Rheged. Newton Rigg Ltd has raised approximately £65,000 so far to fund its ongoing fight for the Newton Rigg assets as well as development of the training initiative. It has also begun fundraising via GoFundMe where members of the public are offering their support.

Adam Day, managing director of the Farmer Network, says changes to the way farms are funded post-Brexit - moving to a model of rewarding them for practices that benefit the environment - combined with the challenge of producing enough food to make the UK more self-sufficient, mean agricultural education is more important than ever.

"The fact that training has been lost from the campus is really, really serious," he says.

"It's a huge kick in the teeth, not just for the farming community, but for the wider communities of Cumbria and beyond.

"If they're going to set up and run a professional training company, which will support and help the farming community, we will back them 100 per cent.”

However, he says it is equally important to have provision for training older people in the sector as well.

"It's important that the older farmers within farming businesses in Cumbria go along on this journey too," he says.

"It's about lifelong learning, to ensure that everybody in the farming community is adapting to the new skills required."