MOST people are aware that the median age of farmers in 2011 was 53 and rising. This is not the average - it means half of all farmers are older than 53.
In fact, farmers account for 14 per cent of all employed people aged 65 and over despite comprising just 1.7pc of the overall workforce.
This has led to all sorts of gloomy predictions about farms being run by old people on mobility scooters who can’t remember which end of a sheep to drench. Some suggest the country might run out of food or, even worse, be obliged to sell our farms to foreigners.
This is prompting various calls to spend money, invariably other people’s, on measures to bring young people into farming. These range from boosts to tertiary studies to subsidies for young farmers to buy or run properties.
It is over 30 years since I was first told that Australia had a problem because our farmers are old and getting older. Predictions of dire consequences unless “something is done” were pretty common back then too. Many of the predictions heard today are no different, and neither are most of the suggested solutions.
As far as I know, during those 30 years no farms were abandoned because their owners were too old or feeble to manage them. Nor were any abandoned because nobody was willing to take them over once the owner died. Judging by our ever rising agricultural output, not many fell into neglect and disrepair due to being owned by old farmers either.
Although the baby boomer generation contributes to the high average, in another 30 years the median age of farmers might be higher than it is now, perhaps over 55, and I expect there will still be plenty of people insisting there is a problem to be fixed. But I am also confident that our farms will be producing more than they are now, and that not a single farm will have been abandoned because there are no young farmers to take it over.
The reason for my confidence is the ability of the market to sort these things out. A lot of old farmers have younger family members who take over farming operations.
For those who haven’t the farm is invariably sold, even if it is after death, and there is never a shortage of buyer interest. A new owner, whether a family member or unrelated, will typically take on debt to acquire it.
At each point, the market determines the outcome. The sale price ultimately reflects what buyers believe it is worth. Borrowing occurs in a competitive environment against objective credit criteria. And the new owner typically has an incentive to increase production to pay off debt. Only if the farm is acquired by a hobby or lifestyle farmer is it likely to operate without regard for profitability, and that is not age-specific.
That is not to suggest the advanced age of many farmers is irrelevant. On the contrary, it is of great relevance to those seeking to communicate with farmers, whether for commercial purposes or merely to convey information.
For example, they are fairly likely to be interested in labour saving devices and equipment that saves their aching back. From padded seats on quad bikes to mechanical lifting devices, they are often the focus of attention at field days.
They are also likely to be unimpressed by fads like social media and environmental hyperbole. Farming is inherently long term anyway, but add in the perspective of a long life and there is inevitably plenty of scepticism. The reluctance of many to embrace the internet until the arrival of broadband provides a good illustration of the tendency to avoid rushing in.
And of course there is a large and growing need for contractors to undertake the work that ageing farmers might once have done themselves, whether cropping or livestock related.
I’m quite sure the median age of contractors is a lot less than 53.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at email@example.com