Farmers: those Aussie battlers who keep our country fed, and our economy afloat. As one of the greatest food bowls on Earth, Australia and its farmers play a significant role in supplying the world with both fresh and packaged produce. However, as the climate changes, prices fluctuate wildly and making a living farming becomes more difficult, many farmers are packing up and selling off.
The natural order of properties and farming enterprises being handed down through the generations is changing rapidly, as youth take off from the land and head into the cities for more lucrative opportunities. As Generation Z, or the ‘post-millennials’ make their way through secondary education and begin to enter the workforce, will they bring innovation and a new enthusiasm for farming?
The number of farming families in Australia dived by 22% between 1981 and 2001. The traditionally home-grown nature of farms and farmers means that very few farmers come to own and operate farms from ‘outside’ of the farming community. In fact, only 11% of farmers today were born overseas. The median age of farmers is much higher than in other profession, at 53 years. This figure is 13 years higher than the national average, and is increasing at a more rapid rate than the rest of the workforce. Although the figure represents the tendency of farmers to work well into their later years, this ageing workforce is one of the key indicators suggesting that younger generations are no longer taking up the mantle for their farming families.
According to Lindsey Lusher Shute, in her 2013 TEDx talk, farmers have been sending their children away to college for generations, for the chance at a better life. However, children who leave the farm to study are not coming back home to take over the family business.
“That’s why today, there are 28 million fewer farmers in the United States than in 1920. And this is in a country with 200 million more people to feed. So many young people have left farming [that] farmers over the age of 65 now outnumber farmers under the age of 35 by a margin of 6 to 1.”
Younger people working in farming has decreased dramatically in Australia over recent years as well, with less than 13% of farmers aged under 35 years, according to a 2012 study. Since 1981, this figure has dropped from 28% and indicates a staggering shift in farming workforce statistics.
In the digital age, options for tertiary and further education have developed, making them more accessible to remote youth. For farmers, this is a double-edged sword. Where university education may have once meant moving away from home and into the city (thus limiting the uptake substantially), distance education has advanced by such an extent that a wide range of courses can now be completed online, from home, in remote communities. A university education is also becoming increasingly popular, and somewhat the norm, for Australian young adults, however those who go on to farm are still dwindling in numbers. A Department of Education and Training report from 2016 suggests that fields of study within Australia are predominantly in health (25.7%), society & culture (22.7%), and management & commerce (13.1%). The areas of greatest increase in university placement offers were in health, creative arts and information technology.
While revenue towards Australia’s GDP from farming is ever-increasing—due to the rising middle classes of developing nations, and the increasing global population—farmers are facings greater issues in income, mental health, drought, and climate change than ever before. With suicide remaining the leading cause of death for those aged between 15 and 34, and agricultural workers being around twice a likely to die by suicide than other sectors of the population, it’s no wonder that farming is becoming a less attractive choice for the up-and-coming workforce.
While this all seems rather doom and gloom, there are still reasons to be hopeful about the future of farming in Australia. The agriculture sector is one of the most technologically savvy and innovative industries in the world. Experiencing rapid change, and increasingly on the uptake of new technologies, Australian farms are an attractive area of interest for young people taking up study in the science, engineering and information technology fields.
These three fields of study, as well as direct agricultural studies account for around 18% of total university placement offers for 2016. These are some encouraging figures, when considering the impact that these fields have on the agriculture sector.
Some of the most exciting fields of research and innovation over the last several years directly relate to, and are beneficial to, the farms of Australia, including:
- Drone technology
- Climate change mapping and solutions
- Organic and regenerative agriculture
- Renewable energy
- Renewable resources and resource-use development (no-soil farming, water desalination, vertical farming)
- Entrepreneurship and the ‘gig’ economy
The idea of sitting behind a desk for 40 or 50 years (especially considering the trend towards a rising retirement age) is rather unpalatable for many of today’s youth. Farming represents an opportunity for these ‘digital natives’ to use their technological nous and desire to be self-employed to foster a career in farming. Relaxations in red tape, as well as an international trend towards start-ups of all kinds means that entering into a farming enterprise is perhaps more accessible than ever.
“With the global population expected to rise to 9.1 billion by 2050, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that food production worldwide will need to increase by 70%. With much of this increased demand coming from our own region, particularly China and India, Australian farmers are well placed to contribute to the challenge and capitalise on the associated commercial opportunities.”
The age-old image of a farmer toiling over many hectares of crops, wiping sweat from his brow, for 16+ hours per day may soon be a thing of the past. Experiments with vertical and indoor farming, and the use of entirely renewable resources is changing the landscape of farming, quite literally. Indoor vertical farming projects, such as that by AeroFarms in New Jersey, can be set up in urban areas, which is another attractive prospect for the new generation of farmers. Close to health services, amenities, and encapsulating the lifestyle that many post-millennials (not to mention older generations) are increasingly fond of, these innovative farming practices could solve the crisis of declining farmer numbers, as well as the issues of declining resources and arable land.
For young entrepreneurs, farming has the potential to be quite a cash cow. As technologies develop, and the world’s population grows, there is no doubt that the need for farmers is going to increase exponentially. For the willing, farming can be a lucrative and exciting opportunity. For now, it’s a matter of convincing incoming generations of this.