Fairfax Agricultural Media's Big Issues feature covers 10 big challenges facing rural Australia. This issue: PEOPLE.
AUSTRALIAN agriculture is fast running out of people.
The relentless thinning of the farm sector's human ranks was starkly outlined in the Blueprint for Australian Agriculture released by the NFF last month.
The number of Australian farmers has fallen by 40 per cent in the 30 years from 1981 to about 100,000 yet the value of rural exports over that time grew from $8.2 billion to $32.5b, the report said.
The authors of the blueprint said agriculture (and the national economy) would suffer unless more people made their careers in agriculture.
Agriculture, forestry and fishing now employ about 332,000 full- and part-time workers including 117,600 in sheep, beef and grain farming.
Employment in the agriculture sector has dropped by a whopping 27.2 per cent during the past decade, thanks largely to the longest drought in living memory.
It hasn't been all bad news with employment in dairying growing by 54.6pc followed by poultry farming up 25.9pc.
The hemorrhaging of people and labour is one of the most vexing challenges facing agriculture - and the future of family farming - and there is no easy fix to the problem.
Farming in Australia's variable and often harsh climate is tough battle that offers uncertain rewards and little recognition in the wider community and within much of Australia's political class.
Older farmers have copped a battering for most of the past 30 years and some are reluctant to see their children endure the same kind of financial and emotional hardship they have.
In other cases, farm children have witnessed their parents' struggles and don't want a career in agriculture.
The uncertainty that now surrounds many family-owned farms - the traditional backbone of Australian agriculture and many rural communities - will only speed up corporate and foreign ownership of farmland.
Farmers have been leaving the land at the rate of 300 a month, according to the Blueprint for Agriculture.
But the reality is Australia must have a vibrant, innovative, well resourced and profitable farm sector and it's high time that governments and opinion-makers around the nation grasped that fact.
Somebody has to send a sharp, clear message to all Australians that we have to play our role in helping guarantee food security for Asia's rapidly rising population. The opportunities from doing this are great while the potential consequences of not responding may not be so palatable.
That means, among other things, Australia can no longer blithely ignore our largely undeveloped Top End just because the chattering classes in the inner sanctums of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane think the vast region should be locked up and left to feral donkeys, pigs and camels.
Northern Australia has plenty of water, a commodity that will become much scarcer in key farming regions of southern Australia even if only 40pc of what climate scientists are predicting actually happens over the next few decades.
The majority of Australia's farmers are male (72pc), 89pc of farmers were born in Australia and their average age is 52 which is considerably older than workers in other industries.
The on-farm agriculture sector is forecast to lose at least 30pc of its workforce over the next decade, mainly due to ageing, according to the Allen Consulting Group.
The NFF has previously estimated that agriculture needs to find about 90,000 people in the short term to build the industry back to pre-drought levels and more than 15,000 people a year to replace those exiting the industry. That, pretty obviously, isn't going to happen any time soon.
Like most of agriculture's thorniest problems, attracting and retaining a skilled, motivated and well-paid workforce revolves around profitability. And two of the drivers for better profitability are investments in key on-farm research and adoption of the results (which requires good extension services) and tight business management.
Mick Keogh, CEO of the Australian Farm Institute, said the business management skills of some farmers "could do with a bit of work".
"You do see farm businesses, multi-million dollar businesses, that don't keep up with their books and turn over their records once a year to a tax agent. That's not good enough for the current day and age," he said.
A Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations inquiry into higher education and skills training in agriculture and agribusiness recommended, among other things, programs to raise the profile of agriculture in schools, an inquiry into the decline of rural extension services and a study into developing the best framework for providing agricultural education which has now become fragmented.