People on the move

Farmers need to ditch ‘old hat’ image to attract best and brightest

Sam Heagney July 17, 2020

Sam Heagney with his wife, Annette, and their children Charlie, Walter and Sybil on the family farm at Mungindi.

WHAT is a farmer? Those of us with any remote connection to agriculture know the urbanised stereotype of flannelette shirt, overalls, gumboots, battered Akubra and maybe even a token pitchfork, is a long way off the mark.

These and other stereotypes that we allow to be created could be limiting outsiders’ perceptions of agriculture and restricting our capacity to attract the best and brightest into our industry.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data quotes 58 as the average age of Australian farmers.

We often see these types of numbers quoted in the media with headlines like “Australian farmers getting older”.

Unfortunately, the ABS survey data generates an inaccurate and problematic representation of the reality of farming.

I have worked with farmers across Australia and when meeting with farmers, the person at the other side of the table has not been, on average, a 58-year-old.

The issue with ABS data is in the way it is collated. To be counted as a farmer by the ABS, a person needs to select their occupation in a census survey as ‘farmer’ or ‘farm manager’.

If someone lists their occupation in a census survey as ‘farmhand’ or ‘stationhand’, they are not represented in ABS data as a farmer.

Are farmhands farmers? Is a truck driver who doesn’t own their own truck a truck driver? Is a solicitor working for a law firm a solicitor? Is an IT programmer working for an IT company still an IT programmer? Of course they are.

So, why don’t we call farm workers farmers?

Image problem

Agriculture is full of young keen farmhands and stationhands who are learning and building their skillsets to go on and have vital roles in the industry, as well as dedicated workers who are committed to growing food and fibre, yet may never be farm managers or farm owners.

We need the statistics to reflect that these people, too, are farmers.

The misrepresentation of survey data to make farmers appear older than we really are generates an image crisis for agriculture. To put it simply, it makes us look old.

I’m sorry to say it, but old isn’t sexy, fun, innovative or cutting edge.

Old is the tractor with the blown up motor that you traded in for a newer, better, faster tractor with updated and improved technology.

If agriculture wants to market itself as the newer, better, faster, updated technology industry, to help attract staff and maintain a level of respect from urban communities, we first need to make sure we are represented accurately.

Barrier to attracting talent

In a recent discussion with some fellow farmers, I suggested that there are many highly worthwhile farming careers available without owning land.

I was surprised by the responses, with people wedded to the idea of a farmer owning the land they work or at the very least the business that leases or sharefarms the land.

The idea of being a farm employee was quickly dismissed and seemed unworthy of the title farmer.

This mentality creates a real barrier for people from a non-agricultural background who want to enter the industry.

Most people don’t have the financial means to buy an economically viable, standalone farm.

Those people can still have the same rewarding careers in agriculture by working for family farm businesses as farmhands, overseers or managers.

It appears we are not doing a good job of advertising those opportunities. In fact, we seem to be discouraging people without land from considering a career as a farmer.

Recruitment challenge

The continued consolidation of farmland is inevitable. In the future we will have fewer farms owned by larger family businesses.

The consolidation of farms over the last 60 years, and the continuation of this trend, will mean there is now, and will continue to be, a requirement for more staff to run those farms.

It is in agriculture’s best interest to ensure we attract the best people we can to work those farms.

We repeatedly hear complaints of it being difficult to recruit people into agriculture.

In my experience there are a lot of young, keen people from a variety of backgrounds who are desperate to get involved and build successful careers in farming.

Positive promotion

We are going to need more of these keen young people and we are not doing a good enough job of promoting our industry as an employer of choice.

As farmers we are bad at promoting our own industry and the good times.

Rarely do we want to be seen to be saying “we’re making a fortune out of this farming game”.

The result of this is a never-ending screed of media stories talking about “battling farmers”.

The recent drought in eastern Australia was the perfect example of this mantra.

A lot of the media representation of farmers was an embarrassment to us all.

It was rare to read a story of farmers making good decisions and taking ownership of their situations through the drought.

The story of the “busted arse farmer” sells better and it plays into a very well-worn narrative.

Sadly, too often, we farmers are responsible for generating that narrative.

Too often we as farmers are happy to lean into it and talk about how tough times are.

Falling back into this safe narrative means the overall picture repeatedly presented by farmers and the media is very negative and downright depressing.

The story of the “busted arse farmer” sells better and it plays into a very well-worn narrative.

Sadly, too often, we farmers are responsible for generating that narrative.

Profitable, advanced industry

If a person’s only exposure to farming was urban media, they could be excused for thinking that Australian agriculture is on the brink of collapse, losing money hand over fist and living in an ever deteriorating environmental catastrophe.  Ask yourself, who would want to work for that industry? No one.

In spite of much of the mainstream media representation, Australian farmers are capable of having highly successful businesses.

We are profitable, technologically advanced, cutting edge and world leaders in best practice.

We are working in an ever-improving environmental landscape.

Again ask yourself, who would want to work for a progressive, profitable, responsible and caring industry? Everyone.

Whether it is statistical representation of age or the image we let the media use to represent us, Australian farmers owe it to ourselves to do a better job of selling our stories and promoting our industry as the place to be for a vibrant and exciting future.

We all play our part in selling a positive story, whether it is through traditional media, social media or real life conversations.

Avoid the “woe is me, I’m a poor old farmer” stereotype and consider the image you are creating for the person on the other side of the conversation or news story.

Every conversation we have about farming with someone from outside agriculture is an opportunity to promote our industry. We need to make the most of every opportunity available and do it well.


Sam Heagney grew up on the outskirts of Melbourne in Victoria. After school he worked as a jackaroo in Queensland, studied farm management at Orange Agricultural College in central west New South Wales, and worked on farms in NSW, Qld and the United States. He has also worked as a grain trader and grain broker across Australia before moving to Mungindi on the NSW/Qld border with his wife, Annette, in 2012 where he is now operations manager on her family’s property. They grow dryland and irrigated wheat, barley, chickpeas, cotton and sorghum and run a small cattle grazing enterprise.

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  1. Jason Mellings, July 19, 2020

    Agree, attracting professional, young people to this industry is a challenge

  2. Kevin Charlesworth, July 19, 2020

    This article is spot on. I have retired now from farming at the age of 60, started with $160 and finished with a few million. I worked hard long hours, had to make some tough decisions but stood by those decisions when they were made. I believe the top 10% of farmers are the ones we should promote not the bottom 10% who have the bare ground, dead and dying cattle next door to the destocked farm which has grass cover and will not be eroded when the rain does come.
    There are great farmers making good money, doing the right thing for the industry and the environment who should be up front and centre of the image of agriculture

  3. Ron Storey, July 17, 2020

    Great message Sam. Language matters! Maybe we need to reframe the way society thinks when they hear the word “farmer” – you are, after all, industrial gardeners!
    Good luck for season 2020 – you’ve had a couple of shockers, due for a good one!

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