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Ageing graziers and few family successors transform wool-growing industry

A Victoria University study shows the average Australian woolgrower is now over 50 years old as fewer young people join the profession and the portion of those aged over 80 expands.

Rural sociologist Dr Roger Wilkinson found the average age of Australia's 20,000 wool farmers is about 53 years, and by 2030, the country could have up to 1000 wool farmers aged a remarkable 80 or older.

The study shows that wool growers whose families have been in the industry for generations feel driven to stay on their farms as they get older because of a strong passion for their profession and often, the absence of a successor.

"Many see their work as a calling, rather than a business from which they can retire by selling the family farm," said Dr Wilkinson, a third-generation sheep farmer himself, from near Warrnambool.

However, the pressure today's woolgrowers once felt to assume inheritance of the family farm is not something they place on their own children – even though they are proud of the industry and their family's part in it, he said.

"Sheep farming families know it's a tough life and neither encourage nor discourage their children," he said. "But if children do want to take it on, the parents do whatever it takes to maintain the family sheep farming occupation."

Australia's $3 billion wool-growing business is unlikely to disappear completely as graziers age. As young people leave the family farm, middle-aged or older entrants replace them to some extent. Of the 3200 people entering wool-growing in the five years to 2001, the study shows nearly all were over 30, motivated either by the lifestyle, or returning in the later stages of their working life to where they grew up.

The research also indicated that high-amenity regions such as central Victoria and the hill country between Sydney and Melbourne – once home to large numbers of sheep farms – are becoming more agriculturally diverse or gentrified by land uses such as olives and grapes. In contrast, sheep farms in remote and less desirable areas are getting larger and more isolated because land prices remain low enough that farming families there can afford to expand their properties.

Dr Wilkinson's study has broad implications for policy makers and farm advisers:

  • ageing wool growers are unlikely to accept adjustment incentives to leave an industry they are so passionate about, so a more dignified approach would be to provide practical assistance to help them gradually withdraw from farming on their own terms as they become physically unable to farm;
  • farm advisers should consider different ways to support the new breed of growers who may work only part-time by offering flexible hours for their services, recognising their different motivations, and helping them meet their obligations as landowners in areas such as weed and pest control and animal health;
  • there are new opportunities to think about agricultural policy and land use as traditional farm succession lessens its grip on farmland and the demand for rural properties with landscape amenity increases.

Dr Wilkinson conducted in-depth interviews with 22 Victorian graziers – most who had been wool farmers for generations – and analysed historical and current government demographic data for his doctoral thesis 'Population dynamics and succession strategies of rural industry producers'.

Dr Roger Wilkinson is available for interview on (03) 5430 4391

VU Media Contact:

Ann Marie Angebrandt, Media Officer,

Marketing and Communications Department, Victoria University

Ph: (03) 9919 5487 or 0403 556 001

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