Australia’s agribusiness sector is being transformed by a growing group of young, diverse, well-educated workers, who are embracing technology and advocating for more sustainable industry practices.
While promoting the benefits of rural Australia to young people can still be a challenge, a Westpac survey of emerging leaders in agriculture shows that the sense of community and belonging is a drawcard, along with getting closer to nature, a lower cost of living and a healthier work-life balance.
“There are a lot of fresh perspectives coming in,” says Rebekah Ash, one of the sector’s new crop of emerging leaders. “I genuinely believe that this is an exciting time to be a young person in agriculture because perceptions are changing, there are really exciting things happening and a lot of opportunity.”
The industry has invested considerable time and resources to reverse the trend of an ageing workforce through rural-focused education and training programs, and there are signs that those efforts are paying off.
People in the 25 to 34-year age group made up 15.5 per cent of total male and female agriculture workers, according to the 2021 Census, up from 14 per cent and 11.1 per cent respectively in 2006, while there were 30 per cent more workers in the 25 to 29-year age bracket.
The growth in female participation is particularly encouraging. There are three times as many women aged between 20-39 performing technical, trade, machinery, and labourer related roles, and then more again in managerial and professional roles, according to the Census data.
Even so, Ash, who is also a Westpac Future Leaders Scholar, says more can be done to attract people who haven’t grown up on a farm or in a rural location.
“There’s a lot of work to be done targeting young people when they are in those years of exploring and understanding what they might do after school.”
Ash describes a somewhat patchy picture across the education system. She says that while there are some amazing high school teachers who are redefining agriculture as a subject, there are also schools which lack the resources to make it a worthwhile option for students.
She’s a strong advocate for the government-backed AgCareerStart program, which helps to get kids who have never lived or worked on a farm into a gap year placement on a farm after finishing school. The job is fully paid, including skills training.
Ash’s own work focuses on environmental markets, and she’s currently studying for a PhD which explores how farms can sustainably reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. As such, she’s keen to stress that a career in agriculture offers a much broader range of opportunities than just working on a farm.
The industry is embracing technology including robotics and artificial intelligence to boost productivity, presenting opportunities for IT specialists and programmers.
Young people are natural champions of using technology to find better ways to work, Ash says, because they tend to be more open to exploring new pathways than the older generations.
This is borne out in the survey findings, with close to half of respondents seeing science and technology as the biggest opportunity facing the sector in the years ahead.
Programs like the AgriFutures Horizon Scholarship, which started in 2010 and now has over 200 past and present alumni, are helping to amplify that effect by nurturing and encouraging young talent in the industry.
Meanwhile, the mix of cultural backgrounds in the industry is also becoming more diverse. While less than 20 per cent of 60-69 year olds with one or both parents born overseas are from non-European backgrounds, well over half of those in the 20-39 age group claim this to be the case.
“It’s exciting to see a new and increasingly diverse generation of Australians embark on careers in agriculture,” says Peta Ward, Westpac’s national general manager, regional and agribusiness.
“That’s helping to turn the tide of an ageing workforce, just as technological advancements are changing how we farm and creating new and interesting careers for young people.”
Almost all of the survey respondents believe that the incoming generation will approach farming differently from their predecessors. That’s primarily due to technological advances, but close behind is the need to adapt to a changing climate and take greater responsibility for protecting the environment.
Ash, like many of her peers, has travelled widely overseas, where she got to see at first hand the devastating impact climate change can have on food security in some of the world’s poorest regions. Those experiences have inspired her work in seeking to find practical solutions to curb carbon pollution.