11 September 2019

Young farmers critical to agriculture’s future

| Lachlan Roberts
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Aidan Barton

Co-founder of the Goulburn Young Farmers Network, Aidan Barton. Photos: Maryann Weston.

For the last two years, the Goulburn Young Farmers Network has stormed the Australian Young Farmers Challenge, taking out first place in NSW and second place in the national competition which showcases high level on-farm skills. At home, the group is pushing equally hard to give a much needed voice to the region’s young farmers.

It’s the voice of the future and one that is critical to Australian agriculture. Australian farmers are ageing – the average farmer is 56 years old – according to the 2015-16 Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Agricultural Census – and likely to have been farming for 35 years. To put that in perspective, the average age of the Australian worker is 39 years.

The Goulburn network’s genesis began with a mission to reinvigorate the local show society as its members were ageing. They introduced the annual Goulburn Station Dog Challenge in 2017, however, the group has since broadened to supporting young farmers from across the agricultural industry; station workers, farm managers and young farm owners.

For Goulburn Young Farmers co-founder and farm manager Matt Sheehy, there was an obvious need to “support and give young farmers a voice.”

“We’re not only running workshops on finance and business skills; we’re providing opportunities to network in the local area. One of the big needs within the industry is to connect retiring age farmers with young farmers who might be looking to share-farm or lease property,” Matt said.

“We also want to provide a forum for knowledge sharing and new ideas.”

One of the barriers to farming in the Goulburn region is land ownership, Matt said.

“The value of land is a challenge with real estate in this area growing exponentially due to the Sydney population drift. For someone wanting to buy their first property, $3,000 an acre is out of reach. But there are other options such as share-farming or leasing and often it comes down to networks and contacts,” he said.

“You hear some pretty negative stories in the media about farming but it’s an awesome industry to be in and a good time to be farming. That’s the value of our group; we can get together and think outside the box, discuss new ideas and support each other.

“Young farmers are at the forefront of technology and innovation. Farm technology is going from strength to strength and it’s having a positive impact on the bottom line.”

Land in the Goulburn region

One of the barriers for young farmers is the rising cost of land in the Goulburn region.

For the group’s other co-founder Aidan Barton, the Goulburn Young Farmers Network can offer advocacy and empowerment through education and information.

“We’ve run the Bank Ready workshop with the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and we’re currently working on a Goulburn forum, ‘Farming Future’, in July which will focus on innovation, young people in agriculture and their futures,” Aidan said.

As a farm manager who’s worked his way up the ranks from station hand, Aidan is an advocate for young farmer upskilling in much the same way as a small business might invest in training and developing its staff.

“Most young farmers need financial and business skill training and so we’re opening avenues for people to learn. That financial capacity will provide them with the confidence to network,” Aidan said.

“More and more, farms need to be run like small businesses and that includes investing in staff, and offering good employment conditions.”

Both Matt and Aidan agree government policy initiatives are needed to encourage more young people to take up farming.

“No one wants the government to hand out money to help buy farms but support for information and education is needed. Not many young farmers would know how to write a business plan or a farm plan,” Aidan said.

The NSW DPI – NSW Farmers Young Farmer Business Project which allocated $6 million to help young farmers and fishers access new business ideas, tools, products and services and to promote and create opportunities to connect with other farmers and fishers and business networks, is one example of what’s needed.

The Goulburn Young Farmers Network is still growing, according to Matt but its importance as a grassroots group can’t be understated.

“There’s no doubt it can be a tough industry…we’re often at the mercy of the seasons and the markets. There’s that old saying that we’re the only industry that pays retail prices to sell at wholesale prices, but there are opportunities to grow your business if you have the drive and the passion, and the rewards are there,” Matt said.

Matt and Aidan were both raised on farms and would one day like to own their own properties. You can find out more about the Goulburn Young Farmers Network on Facebook.

The Australian Young Farmers Challenge is a national competition which showcases expertise in a series of on-farm challenges from animal handling to fencing, driving tractors, putting out fires, first aid, heavy lifting and transport challenges.

*This article first appeared on RiotACT

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