After making a career change from music to organic horticulture – quite a move by any stretch of the imagination – Jennifer Byrne decided to improve her knowledge of the sector by doing an MSc in Organic Farming at SRUC.

The course, which is delivered on a part-time basis through online distance learning from SRUC’s Aberdeen campus, is one of only a few organic agriculture postgraduate courses in Europe.

She graduated top of her class with a distinction, despite discovering she was pregnant at the end of her first year and losing her father to cancer just weeks after her daughter was born.

Jennifer, 43, from Wexford, in Ireland, said: “The course worked for me because, although I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I could fit it into my work and family life.

“Travelling to and from Aberdeen was also straightforward for me, so all of these things combined to make it the best option. In addition, the calibre of tutors is second to none – I don’t think I appreciated this until I was well into the course. They are all extremely high profile in their respective areas.”

Jennifer discovered she was pregnant at the end of her first year and, at the same time, that her dad had terminal cancer. “I had to take the difficult decision as to whether or not to continue with the course,” she said.

“My course leader was great. Without trying to deter me, she pointed out the challenges I would face, which were founded on her past experiences both as a mum herself and in dealing with so many students over the years.

“I decided to persevere with second year and not knowing what was ahead of me was probably a good thing. My daughter, Clara, was born in January, 2019, and we lost my dad in April – 10 weeks of huge extremes.

“My main memories of the second year of study were writing essays by dad’s bedside with a tiny new-born asleep beside him, but also the kindness and support I received from my course tutors at that time.

“My classmates were so generous and kind too, sending me notes and photos of things I missed during the study weekends.”

Fast forward to 2020, having successfully completed her studies after three years, Jennifer wants to continue with organic agro-forestry research – her dissertation looked at pollarding trees for organic ruminant fodder – and hopes to work towards a PhD, if she can get funding.

In the meantime, she is using the experience she gained on a work placement in the organic kitchen gardens of a stately house in Dublin, to put her own half-acre urban garden into organic conversion and is hoping to set up a small box scheme within her locality.

“I used the opportunity to gain as much experience as possible with a view to setting up my own organic market garden in the future,” she said. “I saw the importance of good planning when growing organically, including rotations, soil management, weed management and how to plan quantities to meet demand.

“It gave me lots of pointers for what I want to do within my own garden, things I would do differently and crops that will and will not suit my own growing context.”