How ironic that, after governments have extended greatly increased assistance to farmers and with wider recognition of the rural recovery, national and state political parties face increased threats from independents in rural electorates. Of course, newly independent Queensland MP, Bob Katter, has symbolised rural protest, just as many
farmers once told their children there was no future on the land.
Now, however, the growing opportunities available to young people are becoming increasingly apparent.
The improved rural outlook is reflected in the lower than average rate of unemployment (6.0 per cent) in agriculture and growing reports of shortages of labour. For example, with an increase in turnover from $300,000 in 1990 to around $20 million, Anthony Parle of Griffith, the sole supplier of gherkins to McDonalds, recently indicated a
requirement for another 150 workers.
At its Outlook 2001 forecasting conference, ABARE predicted the net value of farm incomes to increase by 29 per cent in 2001-02. This reflects much more than good seasonal prospects and comes after an increase in farm gross domestic product (GDP) of almost 25 per cent in the previous six years.
NSW farmers are enjoying their best returns in more than a decade and, as NSW Farmers Association President, Mal Peters, recently pointed out, the improvements can partly be attributed to the very deregulation that some farmers complain about.
Victorian Farmers Federation President, Peter Walsh, has even predicted that a doubling in that state’s food export market could produce a massive agricultural boom, creating an extra 100,000 Victorian jobs over the next ten years.
Such predictions would never have been made during the 1980s, when the unfair protective barriers faced by Australian exporters of primary products kept export volume and prices low. But, with the expansion in Asian markets and improved productivity, rural exports have increased in real terms by more than 50 per cent in the 1990s and most
prices have also improved.
The development in Australia of processed food products for export is also helping to combat agricultural protectionism. The dairy industry has been particularly successful in expanding such exports to the Asian market.
The country’s clean and green image is an important factor behind the export resurgence, notably for meat, and this emphasises the need for good managers. A major contribution is also being made by the lower exchange rate and, although the $A is said to be under-valued, the lowering of domestic and world inflation reduces the likelihood
of the earlier wide fluctuations that made agriculture so risky.
Of course, the recent difficulties of attracting young people into agriculture derive from past economic problems experienced by farmers, reflected in the stagnation in farm GDP in the 1980s. The continued decline in the number of farm businesses in the 1990s (now about 103,000 compared with 107,000 six years ago) also fostered an adverse
image of rural lifestyles, as did the belief that a wholesale population movement to the cities was occurring.
In fact, the growth in provincial cities’ populations has been only slightly less than in capital cities. Moreover, while this growth has often been at the expense of nearby smaller towns, these "sponge cities" have provided the opportunity to access a more diverse life style, as well as cheaper goods and services. Improved
transport links and more reliable vehicles allow more management by those living "off-farm".
Nor should the reduction in farm numbers be taken as an indication of a declining industry. Rather, it reflects the extensive structural changes being undertaken to improve agriculture’s competitive abilities. Estimates by the Productivity Commission for the period since the mid 1980s show that productivity in agriculture has been growing
at nearly three times the economy average.
Needless to say, the requirement for further improvements in efficiency provides a major challenge to future managers in the agricultural sector. Managers and professionals (such as livestock, cropping and general managers) already comprise more than half of those employed in agriculture. Indeed, over 30 per cent of all managers and
administrators employed in Australia are in agriculture.
This sounds a signal for young people to become qualified. A business management diploma at an agricultural college, for example, can now earn a starting salary package of over $40,000 a year and institutions offering such courses require only modest entry scores. Also available are degree courses that range from farm management to
Students attending institutions specialising in rural business management appear very content with their training. Indeed, an Education Department survey last year showed that students attending Marcus Oldham expressed 100 per cent satisfaction with their courses overall. They also welcomed the opportunity to share varying experiences of
agriculture obtainable from the mix of students and lecturers. It is surprising indeed that many such institutions are experiencing difficulty filling their courses.