WITH only an alarmingly small number of south-west students heading into agriculture, the region is facing a critical labour shortage by the end of the decade.
Only two per cent of high school graduates are heading back onto the farm or into agricultural studies at university, despite the region’s reliance on dairy and beef farming as its primary income source.
An extensive survey of the south-west’s secondary colleges found that of the more than 1150 school leavers who graduated last year, only 27 either planned to return to the family farm or undertake studies related to the industry.
The research compiled by The Standard found that while employment opportunities were strong within the sector, interest shown by school leavers during the past five years was at an all-time low.
After conducting more than 50 interviews with farmers, career teachers, school principals, agricultural lobby leaders, politicians and the children of farming families, several recurring themes emerged regarding the lack of new agriculture labour on south-west farms. They include:
n growing popularisation of tertiary education in rural areas compared to the baby boomer generation;
n an attitude change to work/life balance due to the attraction of paid holidays and penalty rates;
n the lack of industry promotion and work experience available to high school students;
n fluctuating incomes depen-dent on international market conditions and weather;
n the influence of the early 2000s drought on Generation Y children; and
n industry “image” and lacklustre recruitment tactics used by several agricultural sectors.
Today, The Standard has profiled several farming families based in different locations throughout the Western District and working in a variety of sectors including dairying, wool, beef and cropping.
Lobby groups and political figures working in the field acknowledged the labour drain ahead but were mostly surprised with the findings.
Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) president Peter Tuohey said the state and federal governments had failed to comprehend the mass shortages in several agricultural sectors and the eventual impact on food prices.
He told The Standard a trend had developed during the past decade in which rural Victorian children were dissuaded from taking up agriculture as a career.
“The figures (from the south-west) aren’t surprising but they are concerning,” Mr Tuohey said.
“What we have seen in the past 10 years especially is a whole generation of kids coming through high school that have been put off the industry — mainly due to it’s negative image.”
Federal agriculture parliamentary secretary Sid Sidebottom said this decade would be a period of transition for Australia’s agricultural sector, with family farms not as dominant as they once were.
The Labor MP called for a unified approach to the issue. South West Local Learning and Employment Network chief executive Toni Jenkins said many positions were available within the agricultural sector, but there was a low take-up rate from students.
“There are strong pathways into agriculture which are sadly overlooked, despite its importance to the region’s economy,” Ms Jenkins said.