1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2012  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/05/2012   
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Year of the Farmer


Like many countries, farming has been at the forefront of Australia’s development. It has fed the growing population and provided an underlying economic lynchpin that has been vital to Australia’s prosperity. For instance, the expression “riding on the sheep’s back” was once associated with the prosperity that Australia derived from producing and exporting wool.

Australia’s agriculture sector continues to be a significant contributor to our economy, with the gross value of agricultural production in 2009–10 estimated at just under $40 billion (Value of Agricultural Commodities Produced, Australia, 2009–10, 7503.0).

Australia’s agricultural businesses not only provide for Australia’s population, but the sector is also a significant exporter and contributor to our economy, with farm exports in 2010–11 valued at $32.4 billion (ABARES, 2011a). Food and clothing are fundamental requirements of life and our farmers produce most of the food that Australians put on their tables as well as wool and cotton – raw materials for clothes we wear.

The farming sector helps connect all Australians, both urban and rural, through what it does and what it provides. Farming has helped shape our nation – it is embedded into our daily life, is a major contributor to our economy and will help sustain our population and those of our export partners in the years to come.

Merino Sheep


Farming has come a long way from the first agricultural endeavours; no-one would have envisaged the huge farming industry that has subsequently developed in less than 250 years.

The birth of farming, as we know it today, started from very humble beginnings. Three months after the arrival of the 'first fleet' in January 1788, the livestock in the colony consisted of seven horses, seven cattle, 29 sheep, 74 pigs, five rabbits, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks and 209 fowls (Year Book Australia 2001, 1301.0).

Shortly after the fleet’s arrival at Port Jackson, Sydney in January 1788, farming was initiated at Farm Cove, now the site of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. This was also the site for the launch of the Australian Year of The Farmer by the Governor-General of Australia, Her Excellency, Ms Quentin Bryce AC, in October 2011. On the day, Ms Bryce planted a citrus tree and installed a plaque within the first farm garden to mark the start of the celebration of the continuing importance of Australian farming to all Australians and the contribution it makes to our daily lives.

About two years after the arrival of the first fleet from England, Captain Arthur Phillip assigned land to the ex-convict James Ruse at Rose Hill (now Parramatta). This was the first land grant in Australia for the purpose of establishing farming on a larger scale. ‘Experiment Farm’ as it was known, was the location of Australia’s first wheat farm (National Trust of Australia, 2005).

By 1860, after only 70 years of European farming settlement, there were already 1.2 million acres (or 480,000 hectares) under crop and livestock numbers had increased to 25 million head (Year Book Australia 2001, 1301.0).

Old Farm Equipment on foggy morning, South Australia


There have been many changes in farming methods over the decades, but the image of Australian farmers incorporates a strong sense of tradition, adaptability and resilience born of necessity. Indeed, this strength of character and resolve was required to make farming in our dry continent a success.

While the world of farming has changed significantly since the First Fleet landed, the image of the Australian farm remains a recognisable icon for the Australian way of life. It is captured by mental images of kelpies rounding up sheep, dusty utes, fields of shimmering wheat and stockmen in battered Akubras.

Image: Kelpies.

Increasingly, however, these images are joined by a more contemporary picture of well-educated and environmentally-aware farmers using laptop computers and sophisticated farming equipment to remain viable players in a keenly competitive international market.

According to the 2006 Census, almost one-third (31%) of those employed in the agriculture industry had achieved post-secondary education levels, predominantly at certificate, diploma or bachelor degree levels (Census of Population and Housing, 2006). This is more than double the 14% recorded 25 years earlier in the 1981 Census (Census of Population and Housing, 1981, 2103.0).

In 2010, over 77,000 students were enrolled in agriculture, environmental and related studies through Vocational Education and Training (VET) programs across Australia (NCVER, 2011).

The speed of change over the past 200 years has been exceptional and has accelerated significantly over the past 60 years. An obvious example is the adoption of information and communication technologies.

In June 2011, there were an estimated 10.9 million Internet subscribers in Australia and a further 9.7 million mobile handset subscribers with the capability to access the Internet (Internet Activity, Australia, June 2011, 8153.0). Australian farmers today use a range of technologies to continuously adapt and improve their farming practices. For example, in 2007–08, over 92,000 farm businesses (or 66%) used the Internet for their business operations (Use of the Internet on Farms, Australia, 2007-08, 8150.0).


Australia is a land of climatic extremes that have brought numerous challenges to farming. These have led to inventions and methods of production that have often put Australia at the forefront of world agricultural development.

The invention of the combine header harvester and stump-jump plough, and improved strains of drought and disease-resistant wheat, are just several inventions or adaptations that show the ingenuity of Australian agriculture. Australian farmers have also been quick to adopt large scale mechanisation, irrigation practices and grain handling and storage systems in order to remain price-competitive.

The gains in production made by Australian farmers over the decades have been impressive. For example, in 1966–67, less than 50 years ago, Australia’s dairy cattle herd was producing around 2,380 litres of milk per cow annually. In 2010–11, annual production had more than doubled to 5,675 litres per cow (ABARES, 2011b).

Increases in productivity have occurred due to a combination of factors, including innovative farming techniques, scientific developments in areas such as plant and animal breeding, and improvements in management of crops, livestock, land, water and pests. Supporting these innovations is the increased availability and use of sophisticated machinery and information technology that allow our farmers to work smarter.

Investment in innovation and research and experimental development (R&D) also ensures that our farming practices remain competitive. In 2009–10, more than 32% of agriculture, fishing and forestry businesses were actively engaged in innovation activities (Summary of IT Use and Innovation in Australian Business, 2009–10, 8166.0). In the same period, agricultural businesses spent almost $102 million (of which just under $98 million was self-funded) on R&D into agriculture (Research and Experimental Development, Businesses, Australia, 2009–10, 8104.0).

Over the period 2000–01 to 2010–11, the Agriculture, forestry and fishing industry recorded an average annual growth rate in labour productivity of 5.3%, the highest of all industries (Australian System of National Accounts, 2010–11, 5204.0).



For the first farmers, the challenges were all about adapting to Australian conditions. This emphasis remains today, with droughts, floods, storms and bushfires often affecting agricultural production.

With farmers using over half of Australia’s landmass, managing land and water-based natural resources is critically important, both environmentally and economically. In 2006–07, more than 94% of agricultural businesses reported undertaking activities, costing almost $3 billion, to prevent or manage weeds, pests, and land and soil problems (Natural Resource Management on Australian Farms, 2006–07, 4620.0).

In 2010, 65% of all agricultural businesses reported having native vegetation on their holding and 55% of these businesses protected this native vegetation for conservation purposes. Similarly, half of all agricultural businesses reported rivers or creeks on their holding, with 55% of these protecting their river or creek banks. Wetlands were reported by 12% of all agricultural businesses, with 57% of these businesses reporting that they had protected these wetlands (Land Management and Farming in Australia, 2009–10, 4627.0).

Technological and scientific advancements to protect the environment have included:
  • the introduction of the Cactoblastis moth, to control spread of the Prickly Pear cactus
  • the introduction of the myxoma virus (myxomatosis), and more recently the rabbit calicivirus, to control rabbit numbers
  • the implementation of holistic systems such as integrated pest management and cell grazing, and
  • the use of satellite positioning systems to assist in land management by, for example, controlled traffic farming to minimise soil compaction.


Much has been written about food security, which refers to availability of, and access to, suitable food. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as existing:

"... when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life." (FAO, 2009a)

Australia’s resident population is estimated to increase to 35.5 million by the year 2056, based on current trends in fertility, life expectancy at birth and net overseas migration (Population Projections, Australia, 2006 to 2101, 3222.0).

The world’s population continues to grow at a rapid rate and in late 2011 was estimated at just under 7 billion. By 2050, it is projected that there will be 9.3 billion people on our planet, with nearly all of the population growth occurring in developing countries, including sub-Saharan Africa and India (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2011). With a third more mouths to feed than there are today, FAO has estimated that by 2050, food production worldwide will need to increase by 70% (FAO, 2009b).

In addition, increasing disposable income in developing countries is stimulating a different pattern of food consumption in these countries, with higher demand for livestock products (meat, milk and eggs), vegetable oils and to a lesser extent, sugar (ABARES, 2011c).

In 2010, there were an estimated 134,000 agricultural businesses across Australia operating on 400 million hectares (or 52% of the nation’s landmass), including 26 million hectares under crop (Agricultural Commodities, Australia, 2009–10, 7121.0). These businesses not only help feed and clothe over 22 million Australians, but Australia also contributes to food supply internationally, with around 60% of our agricultural production exported (ABARES, 2011b).

Although imports are playing a larger role in Australia’s food supply, particularly imports of processed and frozen fruit and vegetables, overall Australia remains a net exporter of food. In 2010–11, 67% of Australia’s wheat production, 70% of our sugar production and 57% of the nation’s barley production were exported (ABARES, 2011b).

Image: Wheat.

Australia’s net food exports were valued at $16 billion in 2010–11, with grains and oilseeds, meat, wool and dairy the main food types, by value, exported. Our main food export partners, in terms of value, were Japan, Indonesia, the United States of America and China (ABARES, 2011a).

Advances in agricultural productivity have been the main factor behind increased food production in the past. Further productivity advances, through continued adoption of technical change, improvements in technical efficiency and structural adjustment within the farming sector will be critically important to the ability of humankind to feed itself in the future.

Australian farmers have a critical role to play in not only ensuring that every Australian family has access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, but also in reaching out to help support the global community.


More than 60% of Australia’s population lives in the five largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide) (Regional Population Growth, Australia, 2009–10, 3218.0). Whilst farming is intrinsically linked to every urban dweller (in its simplest form, through the food that we eat), there are many city-dwellers who have never had a farm experience or who do not consider from where the meal on the table has originated.

To a degree, this gulf is being reduced by the burgeoning number of farmers’ and growers’ markets opening up across Australia. There is significant community interest in being able to procure fresh local produce directly from growers and in having the opportunity to interact directly with them.

One of the main aims of the Australian Year of the Farmer 2012 is to recognise and enrich the connections between rural and urban Australia.

The Year aims to build on the respect and interest city people already have for life in the rural sector. This is evident from high levels of attendance at the annual Royal Agricultural Shows in the capital cities, with hundreds of thousands of people attending the Sydney Royal Easter and Royal Melbourne Shows each year.

Yet there are more ways that urban and farming communities are connected. While the share of people employed in the Agriculture industry nearly halved (from 4.8% to 2.5% of all persons employed) in the two decades to February 2012 (Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Quarterly, Feb 2012, 6291.0.55.003), agricultural production has significant multiplier effects for other industries. These include activities such as supply of the goods and services that are inputs to agricultural production, and the downstream activities supported by agriculture (such as transport, processing and sale of agricultural commodities). Particular examples can be found in the Food retailing industry, which employed 434,000 people in Australia in 2009–10, and the Food product manufacturing industry, which employed 210,000 people (Australian Industry, 2009–10, 8155.0).

Mother and child in fruit and vegetable aisle of a supermarket

The Australian Year of the Farmer 2012 is about celebrating and enriching the connections between rural and urban Australia. It provides an opportunity for all Australians to better understand and value the ongoing significance of agriculture and the role of farmers in our daily lives. Various events, initiatives and educational programs are being held across the nation throughout 2012, as part of the program. Plans include:
  • a roadshow travelling more than 56,000 kilometres and attending more than 300 events, including agricultural shows, field days and other cultural events
  • an Agricultural Innovation and Technology Expo, incorporating the most significant food event to be held in Australia, the Food of Origin Extravaganza, which will promote the quality and origin of Australian food products – from ‘wheat to bread’ and ‘paddock to plate’, and
  • a Living Farm Display.

Education will be a strong focus, as will the career opportunities available in the agribusiness sector.


John Macarthur (1767–1834) and his wife Elizabeth are recognised for their early development of the Australian Merino sheep breed and the birth of the Australian wool industry. Older Australians would remember Macarthur from his place on our old two-dollar note.

Frederick York Wolseley (1837–1899) emigrated from Ireland in 1854 and worked initially as a jackaroo on a sheep station near Deniliquin, New South Wales. In 1872, he developed a working model for a mechanical sheep shearing machine. By the mid 1880s, Wolseley’s sheep shearing machine was being demonstrated around the country to the delight of woolgrowers and the horror of blade shearers. In 1888, Dunlop station, at Louth in New South Wales, had become the first large machine shed, with 40 Wolseley shearing stands operating.

Richard Bowyer Smith (1837–1919) was the inventor of the stump-jump plough, which solved the problem of preparing mallee scrub lands across much of southern Australia for cultivation. The plough consisted of hinged shares which would rise out of the ground when the blade encountered an underground obstacle such as a mallee tree stump or large stone, with weights then forcing the blade back into the ground after the obstruction was passed. The invention was adopted almost universally across the mallee lands.

William James Farrer (1845–1906) is most famous as a wheat breeder who developed varieties that tackled issues particular to Australia. His Federation variety had drought and rust disease resistance that helped expand wheat farming in Australia.

Sir Sidney Kidman (1857–1935) was known as the Cattle King and famously used his experience and understanding of the Australian environment and business to build an empire of cattle stations. He ended up with over 100 properties, from the top of the Northern Territory and Western Australia to South Australia. They were in two 'chains' and used river systems to 'drought-proof' the empire and move cattle in good condition from the north to markets in the south. Sir Sidney was involved in many other business and entrepreneurial activities during his lifetime, but is most famous for this strategy and for becoming the world’s largest private landholder.

Hugh Victor McKay (1865–1926) developed the stripper harvester in a workshop on his family’s farm in Central Victoria. The machine could gather and thresh ripe grain heads, separate the grain from the chaff and deliver the grain for bagging. Though not the first to develop the technology, his Sunshine Harvester became a very popular harvester of the era, with sales domestically and exports to North and South Africa, and South America. McKay went on to become Australia’s largest industrialist and manufacturing exporter and his company’s factory was the largest in Australia for a time. His business founded and developed the town of Sunshine, now a suburb of Melbourne.

Reginald Murray (RM) Williams (1908–2003) was born on a farm in mid-north South Australia. Like many early rural Australians, he had many careers – camel boy, drover, well-digger, bookmaker, miner, businessman, historian, author and leatherworker. He is most famous as the founder of the R.M. Williams boots and clothing brand that has become an icon of rural Australia. He was also a chief instigator for establishment of the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre in Longreach, Queensland.

Lewis Bandt (1910–1987) invented the 'ute' (short for 'utility') that has become an icon of farming throughout Australia. An unknown Gippsland farmer’s wife started it all in 1932 when she wrote a letter to the Ford Motor Company in Australia, asking the company to “... build her a vehicle that could take her family to church on Sunday and the pigs to market on Monday”. Ford, through Bandt, produced the first production 'ute' in 1934. The idea quickly spread to the United States of America and in a short time from that initial letter, utes (or 'pickups' in the USA) became vital pieces of farm equipment.

Dame Mary Durack (1913–1994) was a member of the famous Durack family, linked with the development of agriculture in Northern Australia, particularly in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Dame Mary captured the strategies used and the pioneering history of those regions in her famous books Kings in Grass Castles and Keep Him My Country.



Agricultural Commodities, Australia, 2009–10 (7121.0)
Agriculture, the early years, in Year Book Australia 2001 (1301.0)
Australian Industry, 2009–10 (8155.0)
Australian System of National Accounts, 2010–11 (5204.0)
CDATA Online, 2006
Census of Population and Housing, 1981 (2103.0)
Internet Activity, Australia, June 2011 (8153.0)
Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Quarterly, Feb 2012(6291.0.55.003)
Land Management and Farming in Australia, 2009–10 (4627.0)
Natural Resource Management on Australian Farms, 2006–07 (4620.0)
Population Projections, Australia, 2006 to 2101 (3222.0)
Regional Population Growth, Australia, 2009–10 (3218.0)
Research and Experimental Development, Businesses, Australia, 2009–10 (8104.0)
Summary of IT Use and Innovation in Australian Business, 2009–10 (8166.0)
Use of the Internet on Farms, Australia, 2007–08 (8150.0)
Value of Agricultural Commodities Produced, Australia, 2009–10 (7503.0)


Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
2011a, Agricultural commodities: December quarter 2011
2011b, Agricultural commodity statistics 2011
2011c, Global food security: facts, issues and implications, Science and Economic Insights 1–2011
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Snapshot of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
2009a, Declaration of the World Summit on Food Security, 2009
2009b, How to Feed the World in 2050 – Global Agriculture towards 2050, 2009
National Centre for Vocational Educational Research 2011, Australian vocational education and training statistics: students and courses 2010
National Centre of Biography 2007, Australian Dictionary of Biography
National Trust of Australia (NSW) 2005, The Thief, The Farmer & The Surgeon.
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2011, World Population Prospects – The 2010 Revision


Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences
Australian Year of the Farmer
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
National Centre for Vocational Educational Research
National Trust of Australia
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs
United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)


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Statistics contained in the Year Book are the most recent available at the time of preparation. In many cases, the ABS website and the websites of other organisations provide access to more recent data. Each Year Book table or graph and the bibliography at the end of each chapter provides hyperlinks to the most up to date data release where available.