At the turn of the last century, agriculture was in its relative infancy, but turn the clock forward more than 120 years and it has emerged as a global giant that today employs millions of people and generates billions of dollars for the world’s economies. When many think of agriculture, they think of farmers, but the range of jobs that now underpin the sector has grown as quickly as the industry itself. In the recent The Future of Australia’s Agricultural Workforce report from the CSIRO, it estimates more than 1.7 million Australians work on farm, in manufacturing and education, in retail outlets and as the likes of drivers, researchers, animal health professionals, technology developers, biosecurity officers and engineers.
The report goes on to outline the opportunities and challenges around growing that workforce in line with the well-publicised objective of creating a $100 billion Australian ag powerhouse by 2030. Certainly a bold, and exciting goal for our nation, but one that will require strategic planning and investment, and innovative thinking and ideas.
Playing a central role in this will obviously be the regions, where the heart and soul of our agriculture industry resides. To grow our ag workforce in line with future demands, also means growing our regional centres and surrounding communities, ensuring they have the resources and infrastructure to encourage the necessary growth in the first instance, and then sustain and support these expanding populations.
For all the devastation and heartache COVID-19 has caused, it has understandably sparked interest in non-metropolitan areas which have largely been spared the most severe lockdowns and restrictions, with tired and frustrated city residents looking for some relief. So, as the nation plots a pathway out of the chaos of COVID, we should also recognise the opportunity that’s been created for our rural and regional communities, with evidence of a spike in tree- and sea-changers and the chance to capitalise on this migration from city areas. With people already looking to the seemingly greener pastures of non-metropolitan living, we need to be looking towards greater levels of investment in infrastructure and services in order to consolidate the gains that have been made during an otherwise challenging time.
Government policy will also play an important role in helping agriculture build towards its hundred-billion dollar goal. Currently, there are many farmers crying out for labour, with COVID currently closing the international borders that were once open to overseas workers employed across food and fibre businesses throughout the nation. The announcement of a long overdue agriculture visa in June has been cautiously welcomed by the industry but work must continue on shaping and refining it to ensure it meets the needs of all sectors now and into the future.
With the necessary vision, policies, commitment and resources, we can ensure our nation is ready for the challenge ahead, unleashing the enormous potential of an industry that has so much to give both domestically and on the global stage. The opportunity is there for our regions to accommodate an expanding workforce and to remain an appealing option for both lifestyle, education and employment possibilities, becoming a place where you can not only find a job, but advance a career. Only then will we have a secure and dynamic platform for building the agriculture workforce of tomorrow.