'A leg up for young farmers’

Photo by Penny Bradfield

A National Party policy released last month hopes to boost farm ownership.

If the Coalition is re-elected, the National’s plan will launch an 18 month pilot program, which would see the Commonwealth support 40 per cent of an eligible farmers’ commercial property loan, up to $1 million.

The pilot program will cost the federal Coalition $75 million if it goes ahead, opening from January 1, 2023 with a duration of one year.

The National Party says this will enable access to loans at lower interest rates, and with a lower equity requirement.

Barooga farmer and NSW Farmers board member Chris Stillard said the initial idea is “sensational” for Southern Riverina agricultural workers looking to own their own business one day.

“It’s very hard to get into farming and owning a farm - and a leg up would be good for young farmers,” Mr Stillard said.

Senator for NSW and National Party member Perin Davey, who lives near Conargo, said many young farmers have expressed to her how difficult it is to “scrape together the equity to be able to buy a farm”.

“One of the things about our region in the Murray Irrigation District is that there are a lot of family farms - there are a lot of young farmers coming back to the region, so this is a way for young farmers to be able to purchase their first property,” Senator Davey said.

The average broad acre farmer is 62 years old, with only 10 per cent aged under 47.

"They still have to pay back their loan, but with the government guarantee, the banks are more willing to give them the loan and get some better terms of the loan agreement.“

Senator Davey said a key part of the program is allowing for succession planning for families who want to pass on their farms generationally.

Following a one year pilot, the Coalition would consider extending it, if there was sufficient uptake.

"There’s no point having money set aside for programs if people aren’t taking them up,“ said Senator Davey.

“We want to see applications and we want to make sure the banks are working with (administering body) the Regional Investment Corporation.

"And we want to see new farmers creating sustainable and long term viable businesses.“

Senator Davey believes the program would benefit the innovative approach of farmers in the Murray-Riverina region, however the program is not based on geographic distribution or any particular merit.

“It’s first in first served until it is all taken,” she said.

"So anyone from our region can apply as long as they meet the guidelines and the criteria.“

That includes being a first time landholder-farmer, with at least three years of experience in agriculture.

Mr Stillard said the program would complement the National’s commitment to migrant worker visas, following the casual farm worker shortage which was exacerbated by COVID-19.

“We are suffering a very large shortage of casual labour in the farming sector and in the greater economy itself.

“The only ways to fix the shortage are to look internally in Australia and get new workers or externally to get workers from overseas,” Mr Stillard said.

He said the sector primarily relied on travellers on working holiday visas, who have not returned in the droves expected since pandemic-related border restrictions were eased.

“The Federal Government has approved a lot more working holiday workers from overseas but the uptake has been really slow.”

Prior to the pandemic, there were more than 120,000 backpackers in Australia, but now there are just 18,000.

“That’s a hell of a step up to fill that void,” Mr Stillard said.

“Workers are hard to get, they’re getting well paid at the moment because of the shortages.

“We do see it as a real hand break on the ag economy not being able to grow.”

NSW Farmers aims to grow the NSW agricultural sector to $30 billion in NSW by 2030, and has a national goal of a $100 billion by 2030.

“In order to do this, we have to address the shortage.

“Locally at Barooga, I know the growers lost between 15 per cent of their produce because they couldn’t physically get it off to market,” said Mr Stillard.

Owners of dairy farms and piggeries are also downsizing or selling in order to deal with the shortage.

Labor Senator and Duty Member for the electorate of Farrer Deborah O’Neill has argued the ALP’s election policies will make significant strides in addressing the worker shortage, primarily in education and training, along with changes to their migrant worker visas.

Senator Deborah O'Neill. Photo by Geoff Adams

“Labor is going to make sure that we grow the workforce for the future, by delivering 465,000 fee-free places at TAFE, to support jobs, and to support the training of people to work in industries where there is a huge gap between what the economy could be doing, and what the workforce is able to accomplish,” Senator O’Neill said.

“That's going to help the economy in a massive way, investing in training and education.

“We're also investing in delivering a workforce through our changes to our relationships with the Pacific, to provide a suitable workforce to help grow the economy, particularly in this region,” Senator O’Neill said.

“With agricultural workers, I think those things really matter to people on the ground, they know that they've got a problem - they’re trying to get to TAFE, trying to afford to retrain, and trying to provide for themselves.”

She said regional Australia would also benefit from 20,000 additional places for university training, to “grow our own” in the health and education sectors, because they are “desperately needed in the regions”.

The ALP’s approach to the existing Pacific Australia Labor Mobility Seasonal Worker Program (PALM - SWP) would allow Pacific nationals to work in Australia for nine to 11 months in the agriculture sector, “where farmers cannot secure local labour“.

The Opposition has promised to cover a portion of travel costs for those on PALM - SWP visas, where usually the employing farmer would be required to pay the full cost.

Senator Davey said “this is not about getting people into the workforce over and above Aussies”.

"The unemployment rate is at four per cent - there are simply not enough workers to go around.

“Certainly in our area – backpackers are coming back which is welcome news

She pointed to “improved mobility” in the Coalition’s Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme which make it more attractive and stable, along with a bilateral agreement with Vietnam.