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Broadacre growth: More people working on cropping, sheep and cattle farms but less in dairy and horticulture

The amount of staff working on a broadacre farms has increased during the past three years while the dairy and horticultural sectors have experienced the opposite as competition for staff heats up and farmers turn to technology to fill gaps.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences’ latest survey of … revealed the total number of workers used by the nation’s horticultural producers had decreased about 20 per cent during the past three years.

The decline equated to an average of 146,200 workers in 2019-20 to about 116,900 2021-22, primarily due to a 66 per cent decrease (or nearly 30,000) in the number of working holiday makers from overseas working on horticultural farms.

It was a similar trend for Australia’s dairy sector, which lost 26,200 workers during the past three years.

ABARES executive director Jared Greenville said despite the decline in horticultural labour, there was still an increase in production as farmers looked to “non-labour” means of bringing harvest as labour shortages bit.

“During that same period (three years), horticulture production has increased by around three per cent,” he said.

“Farms adapted to constrained labour supply by finding ways to improve productivity, making greater use of capital equipment in the place of labour, along with increasing hours worked by employees.

“Around 40 per cent of horticulture farmers have used machinery, like fruit picking machines, to help with the harvest.

“Others have altered crop plantings for a longer peak harvest.”

Dr Greenville said the amount of people employed on dairy farms had also declined, “mainly due to decreases in the number of operating farms and the number of domestic and overseas workers per farm”.

Australian dairy farms used a total of 22,000 workers at peak labour use in 2020–21, decreasing from 26,200 workers in 2018–19.

This was mainly due to a decrease in the number of operating farms, a decrease in the number of domestic workers per farm (driven by an increase in the wages required to attract Australian workers and competitive labour markets), and a reduction in the availability of overseas workers.

Comparatively, labour use increased on broadacre farms during the past three years, which Dr Greenville attributed to improved seasonal conditions and higher production.

Australian broadacre farms used a total of 196,700 workers during the peak labour use month in 2020–21, increasing from 178,300 workers in 2018–19.

The largest broadacre farms (those earning receipts more than $1 million) accounted for 90 per cent of this increase in workers.

Improved seasonal conditions and higher production were the key drivers of increased labour use on broadacre farms between 2018–19 and 2020–21.

Broadacre farms include sheep, beef, cropping and mixed farms, accounting for around 57 per cent of Australian farm businesses.

More than 239,000 people were employed in the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector last year, with more than 75 per cent working on broadacre (livestock and cropping) and horticultural properties.

The survey results were compiled through a ABARES’ annual horticulture survey, along with data from face-to-face interviews with farmers running broadacre farms.

Issues finding and retaining staff were also highlighted in the report, with 57 per cent of horticulture farms having difficulty finding staff last financial year — 41 per cent of which experienced “lots of difficulty”.

Dr Greenville said the impact COVID-19 on labour markets were less visible in the broadacre and dairy sectors (compared to the horticulture sector) because these farms typically use far fewer overseas workers.

“ABARES survey data indicates that the percentage of overseas workers (excluding New Zealand residents) used on Australian broadacre and dairy farms at peak labour use in 2020–21 was minimal, decreasing from 3 per cent in 2018–19,” he said.

“This remains well below the estimate for horticulture farms (around 28% or 40,300 overseas workers at peak in December 2020.”

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