Growers of the future: younger, smarter – and fewer

One of the key influences on the industry over the next 15 to 20 years is the changing demographics among growers, and the expectation that the number of growers will continue to decline.

This will also be reflected in the mix of specialists and mixed farmers. In round figures, the industry currently comprises 15,000 specialist graingrowers (39 percent), just under 15,000 mixed farmers (38 percent), and about 10,000 (23 percent) whose prime enterprise is in another industry such as cotton, beef or sheep and for whom grain is a minor activity.

By 2025 this mix is expected to have changed significantly because of continuing farm aggregation, new opportunities for domestic processing and specialised contract grains, and new grain uses.

This has been projected to result in about 8000 specialists (27 percent), 6000 mixed (21 percent), and 15,000 (52 percent) who are producing and/or using grain for stockfeed and other special-use grain processing enterprises. This ties in with other forecasts for the rise in demand for meat products and feed grains.

The consultants, Pocknee & Associates, have gone as far as to state: “Increasing competition from low land-cost countries causing on-going reduction in terms of trade and margins, combined with the potential for bilateral trade treaties to open local markets to imports, may see grower numbers fall below 12,000 by 2020 unless the industry accelerates the development of new product applications, and the trend to mixed farming that leverages meat yield and meat sales”.

Whether or not this happens may have a lot to do with another change taking place – the level of household education on farms. Older, less educated farmers have already emerged as those most likely to be less affluent and less confident about the future. By contrast, the next generation, who will be 45 to 60 by 2020, are described as “multi-skilled, highly competent commercially and possessing an intense understanding of regional farm economics and futures”.

But the generation following them is expected to represent a step-change in the farming profession – highly trained professionals with national and international (rather than regional) perspectives.

"Younger and more professional growers who will be managing tomorrow’s properties – including off-shore production – will be successful because they can access technical crop production information, best farming systems for their regions, and knowledge systems to stay ahead of their competitors,” the Strategy states.

Coupled with increased on-farm professionalism, it also says that Australia’s competitive advantage overall will rest on the extent of its ownership and control of intellectual property – in particular, advances in plant breeding, quality standards, regionally-tailored farming system innovations, and everyone’s understanding of the whole value chain.