AS STUDENTS continue their HSC exams this week, thoughts of future career paths will be prominent.
But while in years gone by a healthy proportion of those students may have been considering agricultural studies, particularly those from regional areas, startling new statistics tell us in 2012 that’s simply not the case.
A conference in Armidale last week attended by 300 agronomists from around the country heard the number of students choosing to study agronomy at our universities was at its lowest level in more than 15 years.
So critical is the problem that it formed the basis of a special roundtable discussion at the conference involving five of our leading experts in agricultural education and recruitment.
It’s yet another plank in the raft of issues challenging the future of agriculture in this country: climate change, the encroachment of mining and gas exploration into Australia’s farming heartland, foreign ownership, a high Australian dollar, government policy, imports of produce and water access, to name a few.
All of this has contributed to a fall in the number of farming properties – one statistic suggested the loss of more than 30,000 farms across Australia in the past 15 years.
However, those decreasing numbers of farms are contributing an increasing value of production, thanks largely, you’d have to think, to greater efficiencies, improved technology and scientific breakthroughs, much of this expertise delivered to our farmers via highly skilled and motivated agronomists.
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) tells us in 2010/11, the contribution of our agricultural sector to total gross domestic product – including the value-adding processes that food and fibre go through after they leave the farm – averaged about 12 per cent, or $155 million.
The NFF says Australian farmers produce almost 93 per cent of Australia’s daily domestic food supply.
But NFF president Jock Laurie, in his address to the Armidale conference, made it clear the threat to Australia’s food security from dwindling agronomy ranks was only part of the story.
Our nation has a vital role to play in the projected 70 per cent increase in world food production needed by 2050, Mr Laurie said.
Rather than be fearful of such high domestic and global expectations, we should be excited by it and we should be getting our students excited about it.
The contribution of agricultural experts has never been so important and that will only grow in the challenging decades to come.
The opportunities for agronomists have surely never been so great, something any young person is looking for when considering future career paths.
Governments on all levels have a role to play, with Mr Laurie telling the conference it was vital to secure a long-term strategic government policy that recognised the agricultural sector’s role and contribution.
A commitment to realistic education budgets is vital, too, so subjects like agriculture are not relegated to second-class status, but indeed thrive and inspire high school students to consider a career on and of the land.
Australia’s future depends on it.