The word ‘agriculture’ until recently embodied the hands-on business of farming.
But in the past few years, judging by a survey of the Future Farmers Network members, perceptions of the industry have shifted and widened to encompass much more.
“Our members are now looking at agriculture as a profession filled with different career opportunities, rather than being just about heading back to the farm,” says FFN executive officer Toby Locke.
“People who aren’t from the traditional farming backgrounds are now a lot more open to agriculture as a career. Some of our board members have grown up in the city and live on the coast, but they work in areas like agtech, agrifinance or agritourism – and have a great interest in it.”
The survey of members of the FFN – a not-for-profit networking organisation for 18 to 35 year olds in agriculture – found their top priorities after career advice were updates on developments in ag-related technology and financial literacy, followed by information on accessing markets, leadership, and food and consumer trends.
And when asked what extra training they were seeking, survey respondents nominated digital farming, biological agriculture and GM crops as their top three priorities.
“We’ve never seen such a demand for digital literacy support,” he says, adding that the thirst for information on new and upcoming technologies is a phenomenon across the sector.
“Technology opens up opportunities to participate in agriculture that have never been available before.”
Locke says these findings, coupled with the fact that among FFN’s 800-strong members about one third is engaged in study and more than half – 56 per cent – are women, paint a picture of an industry in which technology and diversification has opened up new possibilities for the next generation.
When it comes to national policy areas that need the most attention, survey respondents nominated, in order of priority, water and natural resource management, drought and education.
“Interestingly, despite the media attention, foreign investment is the least-prioritised policy area,” Locke wrote in his analysis of the survey, suggesting that we may have come to the end of “the mass fear generated by foreign investment”.
The FFN – established in 2002 by Deb McLucas who believed that rural industries were not necessarily lacking young people but did lack properly communicated opportunities for young people – broadcasts opportunities, such as scholarships and bursaries, and holds information days.
Locke says the survey findings have helped guide FFN’s offerings for the coming year, including ramping up information delivery on technology related subjects, and moving away from big events in metropolitan areas or regional cities in favour of gatherings in small communities, or webinars.
Agricultural career offerings might be widening, Locke says, but the FFN focus remains on supporting those working at producing food and fibre in locations remote from commercial hubs.
“People working on-farm don’t have the support networks around them – and that’s where we can step in.”
This is an edited version of a story first published in the Autumn edition of Produce Magazine by Westpac Agribusiness.