Farming’s family tree: branching out

Family farms naturally have a long-term view with strong connections to the land as it is passed down through generations. Each generation then looks to build on and improve the business for the generations to come.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Michelle Cousins on her farm.

This inevitably sees intergenerational collaboration play out with the new generation of farmers introducing new techniques, science and technology to drive productivity growth and ensure best possible innovation and technology adaptation.

“When all children, including females, are given the opportunity to develop hands-on farming skills from a young age, they build confidence, capability and potentially a lifelong interest.”

Technology on farms opens up wider possibilities and opens the sector to those with specialised skills which are clearly in reach of any gender. With women obtaining higher levels of education they are perfectly placed to apply their unique perspectives and skills to take the industry into the future.

Women have always been a feature of farm business decision making in a family partnership but in recent times this has become more visible. Not just within family farms but in the number of females represented in industry bodies, communities and in corporate agriculture.

The farmer’s work has often been seen as work in the yards or on the tractor, however, a modern generation of farmers are showing while hard work and manual labour are still required, they are not the cornerstones for farming success. The modern world of farming requires skills in business, marketing, finance, science, nature and technology. Farms - and farmers - are changing.

Next in line

Another complex issue in family farming is succession. This topic is often tackled as family members come of age or as children divide across farming or other career and life choices and earlier generations look to retirement – or at least easing back.

What is clear however, is that when all children, including females, are given the opportunity to develop hands-on farming skills from a young age, they build confidence, capability and potentially a lifelong interest. This is extremely important in the context of farm succession outcomes where a passion for farming is matched by capability.

When family farms are able to come together to make business decisions by including members with a diverse range of knowledge, skills and experiences, they will have better outcomes. This not only includes gender but also different generations - along with external advisors where possible. This also encourages stronger communication skills to support the farming business successfully into the future.

Experience: on vs off farm

In the 2020 ANZ Agri InFocus report titled “Women’s Work”, the number of women completing agriculture-related studies was shown to be increasing faster than their male counterparts. With women more likely to complete higher education, females accounted for 58 per cent of all domestic students enrolled in Australia universities in 2016. These women return to the farm with different experiences and skills.

While gender stereotypes may have once meant girls were not given the same on-farm experiences as boys, these days it’s more likely for children to be brought up on an equal footing. They are both encouraged to pursue studies or careers of their choosing with no single child being expected to return to take over management of the family farm.

The Nuffield study “Raising women to farm” shows a key influence in whether young girls become farmers is whether they are involved in farm life through their childhood. When young women are given the opportunity to be involved and to develop the hands-on skills required, this builds their confidence to continue working to develop into farmers of the future.

What seems particularly clear is many young girls are drawn to the animal husbandry aspect of the farm. Women’s involvement and talent for livestock-related farming is clear - from raising lambs and calves (extremely important given the current high-value of livestock) to concern for animal welfare. This passion for animal care is reflected in veterinary studies with over 80 per cent of graduates being female.

The early involvement and passion for animal husbandry appears to be leading to higher business ownership in these sub-sectors. The highest percentage of female owner-operators identified within the 2016 agriculture census was ‘other livestock’ at 39 per cent followed by ‘poultry & pigs’ at 35 per cent.


Does the leaning toward animal husbandry from a young age mean young girls miss out on other important on-farm operational lessons? It’s hard to say but you could assume, given the right early and supportive start on any facet of farming, it’s logical to expect a higher success rate of any gender with the family apprenticeship providing a head start for key on-farm skills and experiences.

Increasing popularity

Rural parts of Australia have seen an influx of interest in property. While there are more investors seeing value in Australian property prices and unprecedented investment appetite from within farming (which is the biggest proportion of all farm sales), there has also anecdotally been more city workers realising that with the flexibility of working from home there is a new opportunity to live regionally - which opens the possibility of acreage.

While this new interest in regional areas is a driver of increasing property values, it could also provide a much-needed boost to local communities. Increased demand and higher rural land prices are making it more challenging for the next generation of farmers to enter the industry while, at the same time, those looking to exit can take advantage.

Of all land owned individually, women own less property than men Australia-wide. This figure is marginally higher in regional areas. Rural land value growth has outperformed the national residential property value growth by an average of 3 per cent each year over the past 5 years – making land ownership harder to imagine for the next generation of farmers.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women in agriculture, forestry and fishing earn 22 per cent less than their male counterparts. Logically this makes land ownership even more difficult for women in agriculture. Family farms have the opportunity to provide equity in succession and continue to assist with reducing this disparity.

Smarter, not harder

Farm technology innovations in livestock monitoring and GPS tagging has reduced the more physical aspects of livestock handling, making some aspects of farming more accessible. Women often look to ways to complete tasks more efficiently. And higher education levels are a driver in early technology adoption.

However, the adoption of new technologies across the agriculture industry is inconsistent. A study by James Cook University noted women can feel less isolated and more empowered by the use of on-farm technology and it supports women as they move from traditional separate roles in decision making to productive partnerships in farming families.

New technologies are reducing the barriers to entry for young farmers as they are able to leverage networks and even use social media to access information and boost their businesses. Software and data are allowing them to access benchmarking and information at their fingertips, empowering them to make key decisions.

Labour shortages as a result of pandemic-related travel bans have led to a rapid uptake of technology, digitisation and automation across agriculture. The reduced reliance on low-skilled labour will allow farmers more time to concentrate on the bigger picture and planning for the future.

As the industry continues to move through the pandemic, with uncertain access to labour, there will be an increased focus on sustainable farming practices, improved animal welfare, and technology and automation uptake.

Increased female participation and recognition levels appear to be trending in the right direction contributing to the industry’s success to-date. There is a lot to look forward to for women in agriculture.

Bryony Callander is Associate Director of Agribusiness Research at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

01 Jul 2021

Limitless opportunities

With advancements in the manufacturing industry, roles are evolving to incorporate the interface of robotics and technology.

15 Oct 2021

Cultivating female talent in agriculture

Courteney Kemp | Agribusiness Manager, ANZ

Gender should never be a limitation for women looking to grow their career in the agriculture sector.