The Ageing Farmer: a Growing Opportunity for Sharing Experience and Knowledge.

It is rare these days to have people stay in the same jobs for longer than four years. People desire fresh working conditions, changes to the status quo or complete shifts in career as they move through life. Changes such as these keep us on our toes and eager to face new challenges at the workplace. However in the field of farming, the average age of the farmer is pushing 60 years, with a strong correlation with time spent in the ‘same’ job of farming. Many reports from the Productivity Commission and the ABS highlight the ageing workforce and the impact it could potentially have on productivity. In fact it is continually touted as an increasing threat to the industry.

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Farmer age and gender distribution (source)

Yet Australian farmers have faced an incredible diversity of climatic conditions and challenges. From droughts and flooding rains to salinity, acidity, disease outbreaks and new pests. Even more recent challenges such as herbicide resistance are being faced and overcome by farmers around Australia. The evidence of the resilience in face of adversity becomes evident in the total farm productivity (TFP) once teased out from climatic variability (below).

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Separating farm productivity from climate variability

While changing jobs frequently has benefits, there are drawbacks regarding the depth and breadth of experience earned. It is certainly important to maintain that eagerness that comes with new challenges found at each new workplace, but concurrently, it is critical to gain experience in certain key areas.

So how does this link in to ageing farmers? Well it goes back to the lengthy period of time the average farmer has spent in the industry. From the outside, a 60 year old grain farmer with 40 years or 40 seasons under their belt could be taken for having done the same thing 40 times over. Yet in the last 40 years of agriculture we have seen the rise of incredible new data management, mapping, variable input and gene technology. Let along the advancements in fertiliser formulations, application techniques, pesticide specificity and micro nutrient discovery and real world application. In fact the south east corner of the WA Wheatbelt in Esperance, was largely inaccessible for grain farming prior to the 1970s because of the poor understanding of micronutrients (think molybdenum, manganese, calcium etc.), and their importance in plant health. Moreover, every year is unpredictable and vastly different from the previous season. For example the bumper WA crop last year stymied by heavy frost. And now in 2017 one of the worst rainfalls in recent history. While farmers are frequently considered conservative, a truly static business would fail in such changing conditions, ignorant of advances in technology.

This resilience and adaptability demonstrated by farmers, provides an incredible wealth of experience in managing the response to various stressors and external business disruptors. The jack-of-all trades requirement of the current farmer (from grain marketing to soil science and mechanics) generates an unparalleled comparative knowledge between fields of study that is only possible following 40 seasons of adaptation, failure and success. This presents an opportunity for knowledge sharing on an unparalleled scale across generations for the next set of keen and interested farmers.

And this is where the exciting challenge really lies. It is not in the ageing farming population, but rather in making the knowledge and knowledge transfer accessible to the budding farming enthusiasts. Programs such as Cultivate Farms is part of the solution enabling smooth transition and sharing of experience, and removing the current barriers to farm adoption (e.g. upfront capital).

The ageing farming population should not be seen as looming dark cloud on the future of Australian farming, but one bringing the rains of experience, knowledge and adaptation grown in season upon season of innovation and resilience.

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