Agriculture’s booming prospects and investment appeal are at risk of stagnating, or going backwards, unless Australia starts training many more people to understand farming.
Investment sector boss, David Goodfellow, says our “capacity problem” is real, and a simple and proactive way to fix it could be a five-year fee moratorium on tertiary education courses relating to agriculture.
“In my view it’s a no brainer, with zero risk,” said Mr Goodfellow, the Australian chief executive of Canadian-owned investment business AustOn Corporation.
“We just don’t have a pool of talent available to support the growth the ag industry can see ahead.”
There are fewer people available to pass on the skills and research findings the industry craves, and few being incentivised to get involved
Scrapping tertiary education fees or government loan repayments for university and technical courses would show governments did support agriculture as a growth pillar for the economy and were intent on building capacity at all levels to absorb new technology and manage the sector’s investment expectations.
He said Australia had a lot of catching up to do given governments had under invested in agricultural training and extension for a generation, or more.
Our export competitors and emerging market partners were spending up big to educate, adopt technology and promote change.
From South America to Vietnam agricultural universities were filled “to the brim” with students and academics focused on everything from genetics to agricultural engineering, while on Eastern European farms productivity was rocketing forward.
“Basically Australia’s commitment to ag sector education – for those looking to enter the industry, or people already involved in farming – has been lost,” Mr Goodfellow said.
“There are fewer people available to pass on the skills and research findings the industry craves, and few being incentivised to get involved.”
Less than a generation ago every Australian state had two, three or more, respected agricultural education colleges and universities with strong enrolment lists, he said.
Plenty of academics and private sector contributors supported training programs which embraced and cultivated opportunities for change.
At farm level, government extension and advisory specialists were thick on the ground, supported by an army of scientists at research stations dotted around the country.
However, government-backed research had been systematically cropped, while education sector belt tightening had scaled back an array of training options from agronomic science to food technology and agribusiness.
“Now we’re paying for it at a national level,” he said.
“Everybody, from governments to farmers and private investors, is looking very ambitiously to see the ag industry grow, but it’s not got the foundation it needs to build on.”
Mr Goodfellow, who joined AustOn in January with a keen portfolio building agenda, has solid credentials in agribusiness, investment and agricultural education.
He previously headed Chinese-owned farmland owner, Rifa Salutary, and has led Macquarie Bank’s Paraway Pastoral and Elders’ branch network.
In the early 1990s he lectured on farm business management at the University of Sydney’s Orange campus, then agricultural economics at Victoria’s Marcus Oldham College from 1994 to 1996.
AustOn, owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, plans to expand its almond and avocado investment investments in Australia, building a $1b rural portfolio.
Mr Goodfellow has already mentioned his thoughts on scrapping Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) repayments for agricultural-related studies to federal agriculture minister, David Littleproud, hoping such an initiative might “deserve some serious thought”.
“We’ve got to look at doing something,” he said.
The cost is worth it
“In real terms this sort of solution won’t cost them much, considering in times gone by governments have been able to spend millions and millions on exceptional circumstances payouts to the farm sector.
“Rather than waiting for a problem to really blow up, let’s take the bull by the horns now.”
He believed a five-year fee suspension period was enough time to make a difference to agriculture.
Then, perhaps government priorities could switch to supporting another industry like engineering or health.
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