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Farming students pour in after drought

Universities are expecting a surge in the number of farming students this year after a long dry spell marked by declining enrolments nationally and closures of agriculture courses.

The Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture said the number of school leavers last year who put agriculture degrees as their first preference for study had jumped 15 per cent to 20 per cent in just one year.

”We seem to have stopped a trend that was pretty catastrophic,” the council’s secretary, Jim Pratley, said.

Professor Pratley, who also heads a NSW government review into education and training in the sector, said he was hopeful the rise in popularity of farming and related courses would translate into students in lecture halls this year.

”What we don’t know yet is whether those preferences will be from students who qualify to get in,” he said.

Experts say far too few young people have been willing to consider a career in agriculture.

There are widespread labour shortages and, according to the council, there are 4000 graduate-level positions available for about 700 graduates across the country.

An ageing workforce also points to a looming crisis. The Bureau of Statistics reports the median age for farmers was 53 in 2011 compared with 40 in all other occupations.

Last year, the century-old undergraduate agriculture course at the University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury campus was ditched after applications fell to about one-tenth the level of two decades ago.

Between 1991 and 2011, the uptake of high school 2 unit agriculture in NSW declined by almost one half.

But a report by the Left Right Think-Tank released in November found that students from fields outside agriculture could be drawn to a career on the land. It suggested that students of business, economics and science were prime candidates to fill growing agriculture labour shortages. The think tank is run by people aged under 25.

The report urged the federal government to support an internship program for students so they can experience working life in farming.

Left Right policy fellowship manager Liam Kershaw-Ryan said agriculture had an image problem among young people even though it offered lucrative career prospects.

Internships were common for law and commerce students but less so for those interested in agriculture, he said.

The report highlights figures from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, which showed only 48 per cent of job vacancies were filled in the agriculture industry in 2011-12. Mr Kershaw-Ryan said demand in Asia for Australian meat and produce would only increase in coming years and economics graduates could use their knowledge of ”international issues” to their advantage.

”It can take you anywhere and I think that’s an important point in attracting young people,” he said.

The council president, Iain Young, said starting salaries in the now high-tech agriculture industry could be as high as $100,000.

”It’s not just salesmen selling pesticide. It’s guys who need to invent the next big thing,” Professor Young, the University of New England’s head of environmental and rural sciences, said.

”I really believe that the whole world relies on agriculture.

”All the big money is in agriculture.”

Source: Sydney Morning Herald http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/farming-students-pour-in-after-drought-20130105-2c9xc.html#ixzz2HEwO53VK