Caitlin Radford feels something special whenever she walks through a certain eight-hectare crop of wheat on her family’s farm.
- The price of land is just one of the challenges aspiring young farmers face
- The median age of farmers and farm managers is 54
- Share farming is one option to help the next crop break into agriculture, but it can be difficult to broker a deal
She’s no stranger to the art of growing grain – she’s been helping out on the property for years – but there is something undeniably magic about this particular crop.
“This is my first official crop with my name on it,” she says with a smile.
“Dad is still sort of helping us out a lot and giving me the knowledge that I need.
The wheat is the first of several crops Ms Radford will grow in north-west Tasmania as part of a share farming deal with her grandfather.
The fifth-generation farmer is proud to have taken this leap into a career, but she understands getting a “foot in the door” can be tougher for those not “born on the farm”.
“The biggest thing for a young person wanting to get in is that obviously land is very expensive,” she said.
“You’re looking at around $13,000 an acre here, so trying to save up takes years and years and years to be able to buy your own farm.”
Sharing the load
The challenges facing young people who want to start farming has been a key issue for Ms Radford in her work with Rural Youth Tasmania.
Land prices are just one hurdle alongside the capital required for equipment, changes to lending and misconceptions about the industry.
A lack of young blood could become an existential threat given that only 13 per cent of farmers and farm managers are younger than 35, according to a 2016 “snapshot” of Australia’s agricultural workforce.
That snapshot did find the workforce as a whole was getting slightly younger — the proportion of young people had increased from 21 to 24 per cent since 2011.
But those working in the industry still tended to be a good decade older compared to other sectors.
Ms Radford sees share farming, whereby partnerships are formed between those wanting to grow and those who own land, as a key avenue for young people who want to get a start.
“But I think getting the industry on board and getting these jobs available is the biggest thing,” she said.
Finding the land
Getting landowners to share farm can be a tough sell, given many have heard one or two horror stories about deals gone wrong.
But advocates such as Marrawah beef farmer and local councillor Stafford Ives-Heres see enormous potential in the idea.
“There is a great opportunity for the industry overall to have this young, keen bloke – probably keener than myself – to really get into the industry, grow the industry or grow the operation,” he said.
Cr Ives-Heres believes a key advantage is that landowners don’t have to sell up, which is something that’s been on his mind over the years as vast tracts of land in his region sell to foreign-owned companies.
“Once the land is sold, it’s sold — and if you sell it – particularly to a foreign-owned business for a dime – it becomes unachievable for most other people to get that land back,” he said.
But land is far from the only piece in the puzzle of how to attract more young people to agriculture.
In fact, the problem is so complex that farmer and part-time teacher Clare Peltzer travelled the world searching for answers.
A global hunt
Ms Peltzer visited more than a dozen countries, from Qatar to Kenya, Italy to America, in search of methods to better attract and retain young people in the industry.
She took the six-month study tour after she won the 2019 Nuffield Australia Farming Scholarship, an initiative supported by Meat & Livestock Australia.
“With agriculture moving and facing all these big challenges around climate change, making sure everyone has got access to food and transportation of food … we need to make sure we’ve got people coming in who maybe think a little differently,” she said.
During her travels, Ms Peltzer discovered various means to attract young people to the industry, including the “FaceTime a Farmer” initiative, which provided a direct link between classrooms and the world of agriculture.
But what really stuck out was a lesson she learned from a South African — that agriculture was the “P.E.R.F.E.C.T” opportunity.
Ms Peltzer said each letter of the word represented a different career path in agriculture: policy making, education, research, finance and farming, entrepreneurship and extension services, communications, technology and trade.
“A bit of a limitation for us is that youth either have a warped perception of agriculture or they don’t actually know what we, as a whole industry, actually get up to,” she said.
“If we open up and broaden the perception of agriculture to encompass all those aspects and career opportunities, that way we can essentially have a bigger industry and more people feel welcome to join it.”
Not like the old days
Gary Carpenter has been farming in the fertile valley of Gunns Plains for decades and believes education is vital to prevent an impending “shortage of young people”.
But he said the education effort had to be driven by schools and the industry.
“Get them to see what agriculture can really offer them,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful lifestyle … try to get our youngsters back in that area where they can go and work for themselves and really build a large asset or something they enjoy doing.”
Mr Carpenter realises things are different from when he started farming, such as the demise of relationships and “handshake” deals between farmers and bankers.
“Relationships were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
“Relationships to me are the key to young ones surviving on the land, so if they get into a hard time, they need a bank that will stand by them.”
But Mr Carpenter remains optimistic about the promise of agriculture.
While land prices might be a little higher than in his day, interest rates are quite low.
“If you’re fortunate enough to get hold of a bit of land and can build some livestock, there is no quicker way to build equity for a young person to be able to buy something else later in life,” he said.
“The opportunity is still there and I would challenge anybody to say they can’t make a go of farming.
While Mr Carpenter nears the end of his agricultural career, Ms Radford looks forward to a long and prosperous one.
For her, farming is one of the most rewarding jobs out there.
“I mean, it’s obviously quite a stressful job at times, but it is very satisfying at the same time,” she said.
“You can see where you’ve been and you definitely get out of it what you put in.”