WHILE the farm sector frets about our ageing farmer population - with good reason - the head of the world's biggest institutional farmland manager, Randall Pope, says Australia is actually doing a relatively good job at drawing new recruits into the game.
Although the average age of Australian farmers is a concerning 53, in the US and Europe it is nearer to 60 (and 69 in Japan).
Those aged under 35 represent just three per cent of UK farmers and 5pc in the US.
"Australia and NZ look really good with about 15pc of farmers aged 35 or under - so you're doing a good job at attracting people to the industry," said Mr Pope the chief executive of big US pension fund investor business Westchester Group Investment Management.
However, he said big opportunities for more new blood were poised to open up and needed to be developed.
The next decade would see a mass of farmers retiring from active production worldwide, which had serious implications for agriculture's potential productivity and the way agribusinesses serviced this changing market.
"There are going to be opportunities for people to come into farming, but it is going to take capital - debt and equity - to set them up," said Mr Pope, addressing Rabobank's Leadership Award dinner in Melbourne.
Westchester chief executive, Randall Pope (right), with Rabobank's Australian and NZ managing director Thos Gieskes at the Rabobank leadership award dinner in Melbourne.
"The key consideration here, in what is still a family business dominated industry, is the lack of succession planning.
"A couple of generations from farming backgrounds have gone off to university and often chosen to stay in city jobs rather than return to the farm."
Fewer farmers had resulted in significant land consolidation in Australia - a 50pc decline in the number of productive farm holdings in just 30 years.
To help make agriculture an attractive proposition again, new debt and equity options would be critical to providing farmers with the ability get established in the sector.
"We see our self as providing some of that equity," Mr Pope said.
He regarded family farmers and dedicated agricultural businesses as the best farmland operators, not cashed-up institutional investors seeking a safe haven in which to park their funds.
Westchester, and its associated management groups, manage more than 400,000 hectares of land assets worth $US5 billion, primarily in Australia, US, Europe and South America with New Zealand looking likely to be a future prospect, too.
The 30-year-old company's zeal for holding agricultural assets for the long-term and leasing them out to real farmers had made increasing sense to big North American investment groups burnt by the global financial crisis (GFC) and its impact of shares and financial market returns .
"Returns of about 12pc over 20 years from US farmland make these tangible assets a very appealing diversification to pension fund investors when compared to the volatility of the share market," said Mr Pope.
Investor returns from properties managed by Westchester were typically derived half from lease returns and half capital growth.
But investing in agriculture was no short-term success story and it required consistency and focus.
Farm commodity profitability cycles had made Westchester well aware of the need to budget for the long-term, targeting affordable productive land which tended to be broadacre annual cropping country (although its portfolio includes horticulture and viticulture).
"Our basic premise is to own farmland in major grain exporting countries - Australia was one of the first, and is a big priority for us," he said.
"We're looking for a hedge against inflation and the ability to generate a reasonable return."
Despite there being about $US15 trillion worth of global farmland available in the world, he said a limited number of countries had "scaleable" agricultural opportunities.
Therefore large scale investor ownership in global agriculture totalled less than $40b, or just a tenth of the value of the world's farmland.
"You can't replicate what agriculture has," he said.
"Unlike other forms of real estate, you just can't go out and build more, like office space, if the demand is high and the supply is low."