Jonathan Chancellor | 11 December 2012

Farmer exodus from the land continues as drought, youthful disinterest and long hours, but not divorce take toll

Almost 300 Australian farmers have left the land every month over the last three decades, resulting in a 40% exodus in their numbers.

Not just due to drought, family succession lines ceasing, plus small land holders selling out to the bigger producers.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics report puts the number of famers in 2011 at 157,000 farmers – some 106,00 fewer than in 1981.

The number has dropped by 11% in the past five years.

The majority of farms were small in terms of land area, with around a third covering less than 50 hectares (36%), and a similar proportion (36%) between 50 and 500 hectares.

Conversely there were a small number (100) of massive farms that occupied more than 500,000 hectares, which is more than twice the land area of the Australian Capital Territory.

The total area of agricultural land in 2011 amounted to 410 million hectares or just over half (53%) of the nation’s landmass.

The proportion of land devoted to agriculture varied across states and territories lead by Queensland where agriculture occupied the vast majority (81%) of the state, while in Tasmania just under a quarter (24%) of all land was used for agriculture.

The farmers work longer hours than most in the workforce with 50% working 49 hours or more a week, compared to 17% of other workers putting in similiar long hours in other industries.

More than half (56%) of Australia’s farmers were self employed owner managers, compared with 15% of other workers.

Despite the long hours, the average weekly disposable income of farmers in 2009-10 ($568) was considerably lower than that of people working in other occupations ($921).

However, the average equivalised net worth, taking into account both assets and liabilities, of farming households in 2009-10 was $1.3 million, much higher than the average across other households, at $393,000.

But, according to ABS, such high levels of wealth are not enjoyed by all farming households with 10% of farming households classified as having relatively low levels of wealth.

Some 71% of farming households were in the top 20% of the wealth distribution.

The majority of farmers were involved in specialised beef cattle farming (28%), mixed grain-sheep or grain-beef cattle farming (9%).

The farmers still working on the land are getting older.

“In 2011, almost a quarter (23 per cent) of farmers were aged 65 years or over, compared with just 3 per cent of people in other occupations,” the ABS report noted.

“The tendency of farmers to work beyond the traditional retirement age may reflect the decline in younger generations taking over family farms.”

In 2011, only 11% of Australian farmers were born overseas, compared with 26% of the total population.

In 2011, there were 93,300 farming families.

Almost half (48%) of these comprised a couple living by themselves (compared with 38% of other families), many of whom were likely to have had older children no longer living at home.

Of those families with children living at home, farming families were slightly larger on average than other families (4.0 people compared with 3.7).

Close to a third (29%) of farming families with children had three or more children, compared with one fifth (20%) of other families.

One parent families were much less common among farming families (3%), than among other families (16%).

"This may suggest that separation and divorce is less common among farming families," the ABSA report noted.

"Indeed, of those people who had been married, farmers were much less likely than other people to be divorced or separated (8% compared with 18%)," it noted.

p top listings

Take luxury city living to a new level