THE sharp decline in the number of young farmers during the past 40 years poses no threat to food security, says a senior social researcher.
Dr Neil Barr says the 75 per cent drop in farmers under 35 years since 1976 could be largely explained by a 50pc reduction in farm numbers during the same period.
There were fewer and bigger farms and the older generation was staying on the land longer with the help of labour-saving technologies and innovations, he said.
Since 1991 the number of farmers over 65 had increased by 55pc.
Speaking at last week’s National Farmers' Federation (NFF) national congress, where the need to attract more youth to Australian agriculture was a constant theme, Dr Barr said he wasn’t worried, although many people his age (in their 50s and 60s) were.
Drawing on a 196-page report he authored earlier this year which looked at why the ranks of young farmers were shrinking, the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries researcher said Australia had more young people under 35 involved in agriculture (14pc) compared with many countries including the US (5pc) and nations in the EU (3pc).
And the numbers of people in their 20s working in farming had dropped because many of this age now pursued tertiary education, which delayed their participation in agriculture, or enabled them to get jobs in better paying off-farm industries.
In addition, the investment levels needed to expand farm businesses to keep them competitive and viable was outside the financial reach of many farm families, which meant these properties inevitably came onto the market.
Dr Barr said despite the social impacts on rural communities, the declining farm population was a major factor in keeping Australian agriculture competitive through bigger and more efficient farms and cheaper labour costs.
“It’s a wicked problem,” he said.
What also needed to be added into Australia’s farm demographic was the large number of small farms owned by older people, many of whom were coming to agriculture later in life and weren’t driven by expansion and production ambitions.
Dr Barr told congress participants that if they looked at any piece of local produce there was a good chance it had been grown by a 45-year-old operating a large farm business.