It used to be the case that you had to be born into a farming family to get into agriculture.
But the sector has changed dramatically in recent decades, and so has its workforce, despite the enduring stereotype of a worker as a grey-haired male farmer wearing gumboots and driving a tractor.
The increasing size of broadacre farms and the rise of technology demands a different mindset – one that combines strategy with execution and draws on advice from a range of off-farm specialists – as well as a constantly changing skill set.
Now that Australia is in the grip of a national labour shortage, agriculture faces even-stronger competition for young blood from the science and technology sectors.
AgCommunicators director Belinda Cay says growers and industry report a shortage of skilled farm workers, managers and data and precision agriculture consultants, as well as a huge number of vacancies in supporting industry roles, such as research and extension.
“Exhibitors at South Australia’s largest agricultural careers expo are seeking graduates and skilled workers to support their industry now and into the future to prepare for innovation, machinery automation and data management, as well as climate change, carbon and sustainability,” Ms Cay says.
An alliance of peak bodies in the food supply chain has calculated the overall shortfall at 172,000 jobs.
The latest estimates from the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture (ACDA), based on job ad numbers, are that more than six vacancies exist for every graduate of a university agriculture course.
ACDA secretary Jim Pratley, who is a professor of agriculture at Charles Sturt University, says there are about 1000 unfilled jobs based in cities and another 4000 in regional and rural areas.
Farm management roles accounted for 27 per cent of the vacancies, followed by merchandise and retailing (23 per cent), processing (13 per cent), industry organisations (11 per cent), agronomy (nine per cent), machinery and finance (three per cent), government (two per cent) and education (one per cent).
Agtech jobs were included as a separate category for the first time in last year’s survey, which identified 160 job ads in that field alone.
Professor Pratley says the shortfall in workers is not a new problem. Indeed, it was one of the reasons behind the formation of the ACDA in 2007 at a time when agriculture education was at a crossroads.
Not long afterwards, the Primary Industries Education Foundation Australia (PIEFA) was created to promote and develop credible, objective teaching material for primary and secondary students.
A continuing disconnect
PIEFA chief executive officer Luciano Mesiti, a former high school agriculture teacher and university researcher, says the courses and lesson plans they develop aim to inform Australia’s largely urban population about where and how its food and fibre are produced.
Online resources include the Primezone website, the online course platform Primezone Academy, Career Harvest – which promotes careers in agriculture right along the supply chain – and Farmer Time, which offers virtual farm and other tours.
GRDC is a partner with PIEFA, which also offers professional development activities for teachers of other subjects, such as geography, science and technology, which link to agriculture more broadly.
“There’s so many really fascinating and interesting topics,” Mr Mesiti says.
“Technology is a really big driver, especially in the grains industry as we know, (but) that story is not being told in the classroom.
“The general public don’t know about the immense amount of technology that’s used to grow, monitor and manage broadacre crops. There’s a real disconnect. There’s that rural-urban divide, but there’s a divide inside rural areas as well. There’s this lack of connection between where the products come from and how they are transformed.
“And there’s a whole misconception that in broadacre cropping an old man on a tractor means that it’s not very sophisticated. There’s a lack of information going out into the general public about what the grain industry is doing today.”
Mr Mesiti says the knowledge gap was reinforced at a NSW conference for 500 careers advisers in October, where he learned several had no idea what broadacre cropping meant.
“There seems to be a general lack of knowledge that the bread that you ate this morning came from a field and was produced by a very intelligent farmer with a great deal of technology, who is producing a larger amount of product per hectare than they did 20 years ago,” he says.
A 2020 PIEFA research project found 20 per cent of students knew nothing about grain growing and 32 per cent did not know pasta was made from plant material.
It identified their three top influences as teachers, print and broadcast media, and family and friends.
Agricultural jobs were assumed to be boring, low-paid and only in rural areas. Most students who said they would consider a job in food and fibre had a connection or experience through school or family.
“Of these students, many noted their purpose would be to make farming more sustainable and improve the industry,” the project report said.
Two-thirds of students said they would like to know more about food and fibre careers, but only 15 per cent indicated an interest in grain and oilseeds.
A comparison with a similar 2011 study – which famously found 30 per cent of students thought yoghurt grew on plants – showed little change in young people’s understanding.
“This research has shown there is an ongoing challenge to establish a compelling dialogue with students to reposition food and fibre industries in their hearts and minds,” the report says.
During the past 18 months Ms Cay, who is a science communicator and facilitator, implemented the SA Ag Careers Hub, which has worked with more than 5000 South Australian school children and teachers to showcase careers, pathways and opportunities in agriculture.
They have had some great successes, but also learned valuable lessons for industry to consider.
Ms Cay says one of the hurdles schools faced was their limited operating budgets. Of the 765 schools in South Australia, about 75 offered specialist agriculture at senior high school level and had budgets of just $1000 to $25,000 for their school farms.
“The budget limitations impact infrastructure and the ability to invest and have a working school farm that has the technologies farmers are using,” she says. “Schools are also struggling to fill ag teacher positions.”
Through the SA Ag Careers Hub project, a partnership with the University of Adelaide and Urrbrae Agricultural High School funded by the Australian Government’s National Careers Institute, coaching was provided to 30 mentors who addressed school students during excursions to visit different parts of the industry in action.
AgCommunicators also has employed a lead agricultural teacher for South Australia, Sue Pratt, with funding from the South Australian Grains Industry Trust and the SA Sheep Industry Fund through Livestock SA.
Ms Pratt says her objective is to support the state’s agriculture teachers, especially those who aren’t qualified to teach agriculture but have been co-opted into filling the role.
“It is pretty important for us to support them and help them develop their skills and get access to some really good resources and some good people to make sure that their programs are as strong as they can be,” she says.
Ms Pratt says they link teachers to the resources available from PIEFA and work with them to provide students with information about career pathways and opportunities.
“The general perception is that you link agriculture with farming, and we know that that’s only about 30 to 40 per cent of the jobs across the supply chain,” she says.
“There’s a whole range of really interesting careers that wrap around farmers and we know there’s a role for everybody in agriculture, no matter what your skill set is.
“There’s a big shortfall in the number of people working in agriculture, so we absolutely have to recruit from outside of the traditional pipeline. Part of my role is to extend ag programs into more schools, and particularly metropolitan, so that we can tap into a bigger pool of possible employees in the future and open their eyes to the really fantastic opportunities that exist in agriculture.”
Student number increases
A recent success story is the uptick in Year 12 students studying agriculture at Urrbrae Agricultural High School. The state’s only specialist selective agricultural school, it has a 35-hectare working farm and is close to the University of Adelaide’s Waite Campus.
Urrbrae agriculture coordinator Damien Brookes says changes to the curriculum – switching from a general agriculture program to 12 elective specialised agriculture subjects available from Year 10 – resulted in a record number of agriculture students in Year 12 in 2023.
Mr Brookes says 67 of the 200 Year 12 students had studied agriculture subjects in 2023 and the number was expected to increase to 76 in 2024.
“We’re also seeing more students from outside our zone wanting to come in because of the selection and variety of subjects,” he says.
As well as those who do a Certificate III in Agriculture or Rural Operations as part of a school-based apprenticeship or traineeship and go straight into the workforce, Mr Brookes says students are going on to further study at the University of Adelaide, Longerenong and Marcus Oldham colleges, and the University of New England, at Armidale.
He says feedback from students indicated they were interested in both agriculture and pursuing a career in the sector.
“They’re seeing the opportunity and not just as farmhands ... but into engineering, management or finance or consultancy to name a few,” he says. “We’ve also got a lot of suburban students that don’t necessarily have an ag background who are seeing the opportunities, which is pleasing.”
GRDC has offered Agricultural Training Awards in some form since 2006. Awards provide up to 12 students per year with $3000 each to cover tuition fees to further their agricultural education. Of the students below, Angus Hawkins, Jedah Huf, Amity Smith and Asher Whitehand received GRDC support.
Angus Hawkins grew up on the family’s mixed farm, producing crops, hay and Merino sheep, near Minimay, west of Horsham, Victoria.
After four years at boarding school in Adelaide, he has just completed his first year at Longerenong Agricultural College.
Angus says he has always had a passion for agriculture, particularly cropping and agronomy, and hopes to eventually return to the farm.
“I’m considering going on to further studies,” he says. “But looking at a mix of travelling and working before going back.”
He says there is an opportunity for urban and metropolitan schools to increase the exposure of students to different aspects of agriculture and enlarge the pool of potential workers. “To fill these gaps, you’re not going to be able to rely on getting enough people from the country.”
Jedah Huf has her immediate future mapped out now that she has finished an Advanced Diploma of Agribusiness Management at Longerenong College.
She has been accepted into the two-year Nutrien Ag Solutions Agronomy Graduate Program, which will provide exposure to different parts of the business in various locations as well as professional development, and she hopes to be offered a job by the company after it ends.
Jedah’s family has a sheep, cropping and hay farm near Hamilton, in Victoria, but agriculture was not offered as a subject at Hamilton and Alexandra College, so she undertook a Certificate III in agriculture externally at night.
About one-quarter of the students in her cohort at Longerenong are not from a farming background, which she thinks is “pretty cool”.
Jedah emphasised the need for both industry and educators to boost public awareness that a career in agriculture offered more than working with sheep or driving a tractor.
“There’s agribusiness, rural merchandising, insurance, all the more academic stuff, as well as practical skills in horticulture, cropping and livestock,” she says. “It’s not just the one thing.”
Ben Peden is proof that you do not have to grow up on a farm or live in the country to pursue a career in agriculture.
As a Year 9 student at Barker College – which is renowned for its agricultural program – in the north-western suburbs of Sydney, and with a growing interest in where his food came from, Ben chose to study agriculture.
“The program was really good at showcasing the idea of paddock to plate,” he says. “But then also highlighting that roles in ag are not just being a farmer; there’s actually a lot more to it and if you’ve got an interest in commerce or science, it’s actually an industry where you can do a lot of different things.”
Ben is interested in agtech, finance and consulting. He is a third-year student at the University of Sydney, where he is undertaking a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Advanced Studies, majoring in agriculture and business management, with plans to do an honours year in 2024.
Amity Smith grew up on a mixed livestock and cropping farm near Ballarat and has her sights set on a career in broadacre agronomy consulting or research.
She is studying for an Advanced Diploma of Agribusiness Management and a Diploma of Applied Agronomy at Longerenong Agricultural College after completing a Certificate II in Agriculture through Federation University as a student at Loreto College Ballarat, which did not offer agriculture subjects.
Amity says schools could do more to promote tertiary agricultural courses and educate students about agriculture, even if it was not a career path they wanted to follow.
She and many of her fellow students at Longerenong had to find out about it for themselves unless they had friends or family who had been there, she says.
Asher Whitehand grew up in Geelong and moved to Birchip with his family in 2017.
“I wasn’t super-surrounded by ag but my dad, David, has always been involved in some way,” he says.
Asher says he is grateful for the support of his high school careers teacher, who helped make a pathway to tertiary study.
Undertaking an Advanced Diploma of Agribusiness Management at Longerenong College, he is considering also doing a Diploma of Applied Agronomy.
Asher is passionate about crops and animal production and keen to work as an agronomist or with livestock.
“There’s hundreds of jobs available,” he says. “It’s a really good industry to be in; I think we’re really lucky to have all the opportunities that we have presented to us.”