The number of farmers in Australia might have fallen dramatically over the past two decades but agricultural degrees are back in vogue.
As Australian agriculture enters a new growth phase, universities have seen a revival in interest in agricultural studies from students without farming backgrounds but who want careers in the technological and engineering aspects of agriculture.
“In the last 24 months we’ve seen some amazing surges in the number of people wanting to study ag-science,” says National Farmers’ Federation chief executive, Simon Talbot, who said the NFF’s own graduate program this year was “inundated” with applicants with technology and engineering backgrounds wanting experience in agriculture.
“It’s fair to say that universities and TAFE’s have wound back their agricultural studies offering over the past twenty years but many are now becoming inquisitive about the area again.”
The 2012 review into agricultural education and training in NSW found there was more scope to introduce agriculture into the curriculum given it was taught in only one third of public secondary schools.
More can also be done to sell agriculture as a lifestyle choice, says Talbot.
“The stereotypical idea of a farmer is an old, rusted-on 65-year-old who is struggling in drought and it’s actually wrong: the stereotypical farmer might just as easily be the young farming family living in the Riverina enjoying a good lifestyle,” says Talbot.
“Young people moving into farming are making a lifestyle choice about living in rural communities and having a go at an emerging sector.”
Students applying to study agriculture might have once looked to develop their STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills in mining jobs but are now seeking alternative career paths given the waning resource sector, according to Peter Sharp acting Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment at The University of Sydney.
“The message that the mining resource boom is tailing off most likely played a part in enrolments this year,” says Sharp. “There is traditionally competition between the three major areas for rural employment – environmental, mining or agriculture – and it was a problem retaining labour in agriculture a number of years ago because of salaries and opportunities in mining but that has changed.”
STUDENT NUMBERS CLIMB
The University of Melbourne made a record number of first-round offers for its Bachelor of Agriculture program in 2016, as did The University of Sydney. The largest provider of tertiary agriculture studies, the School of Agriculture and Wine Sciences at Charles Sturt University (CSU), has 86 first year admissions for its Bachelor of Agriculture Science, up 43 per cent on last year. There are 215 students starting degrees in agriculture this year across the four undergraduate CSU degrees on offer.
At The University of Melbourne, 198 places were offered, a 30 per cent increase in enrolments on last year, and a different story from the 20 students who enrolled in the degree back in 2009.
The University of Sydney has seen a similar renaissance in its Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, with enrolments steadily growing in recent years. This year, 181 places were offered, up 36 per cent on 2014 enrolments.
High on the list of considerations, aside from the prospect of “good, reasonably well-paid jobs,” is the realisation that agricultural careers nowadays are not necessarily about becoming a farmer and the jobs on offer require tech-savvy, highly-skilled professionals.
“I tell our prospective students: about one third of the agricultural jobs are in the city, another third in large regional centres and about a third are in more rural areas,” says Gall, who has observed starting students are deeply engaged with issues of food security and climate change and how to feed our growing world.
COURSES BENEFIT FROM MINING DOWNTOWN
“Younger people see agriculture as a way to engage with those questions and are keen to contribute to those challenges.”
According to the National Farmers’ Federation, this year’s graduate program was inundated with requests from graduates from non-farming backgrounds, many with strong science and technology skill sets.
Many of those applicants were willing to work for free to build up their skills in agriculture, and many had switched their job search to focus on agriculture over mining, according to the NFF’s Talbot.
“We’re finding there are a lot of students in robotics and engineering and technology going, ‘well, we thought the mining boom was going to provide me with a job. It’s not now so what else do I do? Where do I look?’,” says Talbot.
Agricultural skills are in high demand, says CSU spokeswoman Polly McDougall, and employment rates for graduates from CSU’s Bachelor of Agricultural Science regularly exceeds 94 per cent. Graduates go on to have careers as agronomists, livestock production specialists, farm managers, researchers and irrigation specialists, among others.
Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh says the skill set of the modern farmer is undergoing rapid change as the long-term trend towards fewer lower-skilled farming roles gathers pace.
“We are seeing the widespread removal of lesser-skilled roles in agriculture and changing given the high degree of technical knowledge associated with farm equipment nowadays. Now you’ve got a fully computerised and highly-integrated tractor that talks to and interacts with the implements it drags around and so you need some pretty switched-on, computer-literate person to be able to operate that and solve problems that invariably arise.”
Future farming jobs will increasingly be filled by those with robotics and engineering backgrounds, says the NFF, and graduates will become analysts, consultants and scientists, as well ag-entrepreneurs.
“I get in trouble sometimes for saying this but “the future Australian farmer” doesn’t need to come from a farming background,” says Talbot. “They need to equip themselves in agricultural practices but the technology, science and entrepreneurial skills are more important than understanding the farming skill.”
“The farming skill can be picked up but if you haven’t got a good foundation in running a business and understanding how to use technology across the whole of the supply chain then you’re not going to optimise the land that you’ve got.”