Agriculture in Australia: an overview

Kieren Jacobs
Team GradAustralia
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Overview

Three months after the First Fleet’s arrival in Australia, the newfound Sydney colony boasted seven horses, seven cattle, 29 sheep, 74 pigs, five rabbits, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, and 209 fowls. This, it was thought, would be sufficient to develop agriculture in Sydney. However, it wasn’t until settlers penetrated inland, establishing farms in places like Parramatta and Blaxland, that agriculture—buoyed largely by the global demand for Merino wool—began to take off.

Farmers quickly adapted to Australia’s often harsh conditions with productivity-boosting innovations. These included Richard Smith’s ‘stump-jump’ plough and Frederick Wolseley’s development of sheep-shearing machinery. By the 1840s, agriculture had become a primary industry, with the Australian economy said to be “riding on the sheep's back” until around 1950, when production began to decline.  

Nowadays, agriculture remains a vital contributor to Australia’s economy, employing more than 370,000 people, including 135,000 farmers. Together, they generate enough produce for 80 million people, allowing them to provide 93% of the domestic food supply while also exporting about $41 billion of commodities (or 13% of total exports) each year.

What’s involved

Broadly defined, agriculture involves the cultivation and breeding of livestock and crops that are used to support or improve human life. In Australia, with its broad variations in climate and elevation, farmers are able to produce a wide range of cold weather, warm weather, and tropical foods. The most recent government estimates show that our major agricultural commodities are grains and oilseeds (29.8%), meat (24.0%), industrial crops (sugar, cotton and wine) (13.5%), wool (7.0%), dairy (6.6%) and horticulture (4.5%).

The actual work of agriculture involves employees in five main categories: crop laborers and farm-workers, livestock labourers and farm-workers, agricultural equipment operators, and animal breeders. The fifth category includes farmers and agricultural managers, who are responsible for supervising, planning, transporting, and selling agricultural commodities. While workers in the first four categories often learn on the job, it’s not uncommon for farmers and agricultural managers to have studied things like business, agronomy, dairy science, agricultural economics, and so on.

Challenges in contemporary Australian agriculture

Today, Australian agriculturalists face a range of challenges, such as climate change, variations in rainfall, the need to invest in infrastructure and technology, declining commodity prices, and a critical shortage of skilled labour.

For graduates, an imminent challenge will be the need to increase agricultural productivity. Already, two thirds of Australian land is dedicated to farming, and 90 percent of that land is used for cattle and sheep grazing. However, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that, to meet projected demands by 2050, global food production will need to increase by 70 percent. One approach would be to increase the amount of arable land available to Australian farmers by thinking creatively about the management of introduced species, the revitalization of low-nutrient areas, and the relative sustainability of different crops.

Who are the key players?

The backbone of the Australian agricultural industry comprises some 85,681 farm businesses, 99 percent of which are Australian owned and operated. These range in size from small boutique operations for the production of exotic fruits, to massive organisations. For example, the Australian Agricultural Company is Australia’s oldest continually operating business and manages almost 600,000 head of cattle. These farms employ thousands of people in both labor-intensive positions (such as harvesting and shearing) and more professional jobs (such as administrative, business, and finance roles).   

Increasingly, foreign investors are also playing a part in the development of Australian agriculture. Already, about 14% of Australian farmland is foreign owned, and this is set to rise. For example, the Chinese organisation ‘New Hope Group’ has committed to investing one billion dollars in Australian agriculture by 2020.

Many jobs are being created in ‘ag-tech’, a sub-industry that is expected to be worth around $100 billion by 2030. Ag-tech involves using technological innovations to increase agricultural productivity and protect our food security. Some examples include using salinity sensors to monitor oyster farms, developing drones for targeted crop spraying, creating software to manage specific crops, and cultivating new strains of staple crops that can resist anticipated climate variations. The ag-tech industry includes many positions for engineers, chemists, computer scientists, and other degree-accredited professionals.

Entering the agricultural sector

Many jobs in agriculture—especially those that involve physical labour, such as fruit picking or sheep shearing—require only on-the-job training. However, if you’re looking for a role that allows you to take advantage of your tertiary education, you’ll find plenty of selective employment opportunities. For example, as farming has become more sophisticated, an increasing proportion of farmers and agricultural managers have relied on tertiary degrees in agriculture, economics, business, and related areas.

Currently, several state governments, such as the government of NSW, are developing or enacting plans designed to attract graduates to agriculture by sponsoring well-defined career pathways and promoting rural placements. This is especially important given that the average age of Australian farmers is continuing to rise, with many approaching retirement.

Outside of explicitly farm-based roles, there are various positions in agricultural sub-industries, such as agricultural technology, which are filled by direct application. These sub-industries include a range of established businesses and startups in both regional and rural locations.

Salaries

Salaries fluctuate dramatically in agriculture (according to variations in commodity prices and crops), and the seasonal nature of many jobs (such as sheep shearing or harvesting) means that people are often hired on an ad hoc basis, making it difficult to estimate average pay. Some examples of roles for which there is verifiable salary information in this sector include: agricultural and forestry scientist ($1,473 per week before tax) and product quality controller ($1,149 per week before tax).

To find out more about graduate careers in the agriculture sector, visit our job industry page for agriculture at GradAustralia.