Age-old quandry

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Despite a popular perception that Australian agriculture is facing an ‘age crisis’, a recent study has found that Australia has a younger farming population compared with all but one other developed country – New Zealand.

The study, funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), also found that while the proportion of growers under 35 years of age had fallen by 75 per cent over the past 40 years, most growers under 35 were on the larger farms that produced the bulk of Australia’s farm production.

“So the structural ageing in the farm sector is probably not a threat to Australia’s food security or to future growth in the sector,” says the study’s author Neil Barr, from the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

The study report, New entrants to Australian agricultural industries: Where are the young farmers?, used Australian Bureau of Statistics population census data from the eight censuses conducted between 1976 and 2011 to examine the demographic structure of the Australian grower population.

The report quantifies the extent of structural ageing in the Australian farm sector, examines the causes of the structural ageing and explores the social, demographic and economic conditions influencing this.

The study found that the main factor behind the fall in the percentage of growers under 35 has been the decreasing number of farms due to farm aggregation, leaving fewer opportunities for younger people to enter agriculture.

Mr Barr says another reason, common to the rest of the Australian labour market, is the structural ageing of the workforce and delayed entry to the workforce due to more years spent in tertiary education.

“What sets farming apart is the lowering rate of exit from farming among growers aged over 65,” he says.

“This decreases the proportional measure of farmers under 35 and is also a contributor to the increasing median age of the farmer population. Also, the increasing age of first marriage has reduced the number of younger female entrants to farming.”