14 October 2023

Surge in 'townies' in agriculture courses set to reap benefits for labour-starved industry

| Shri Gayathirie Rajen
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young woman sitting in car with dog

TAFE NSW Primary Industries Centre graduate Courtney Gray is one of a growing number of ”townies” carving a path in the agriculture industry. Photo: Supplied.

The state’s peak farming body has welcomed the growing number of “townies” studying agriculture in the region.

NSW Farmers is buoyed by the trend of increased numbers of students enrolling at the TAFE NSW Primary Industries Centre in North Wagga, hoping it will help the agriculture industry confront its skills gap.

With a “perfect storm” of robust commodity prices and favourable seasonal conditions, the local agriculture industry is experiencing a significant surge, but it is also grappling with an escalating labour shortage to meet the soaring demand.

NSW Farmers workplace relations chair Chris Stillard said new data showing more students from non-farming backgrounds were studying agriculture was a positive for the industry.

“Modern agriculture is a diverse industry, and we don’t just have tractor drivers and stockhands anymore. We’ve got mechanics, drone pilots and network engineers as well,” Mr Stillard said.

“TAFE NSW will play an important role in helping the industry have a skilled pipeline of workers into the future.

“A growing global population means a growing need for food, and agriculture is where that food comes from, so you can be outstanding in any field while you’re out standing in a field.”

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Recent TAFE graduate Courtney Gray, despite growing up in suburbia, developed a love of farming after visiting an ex-partner’s family cattle farm.

The 28-year-old completed her Certificate IV in Agriculture and is part of a growing band of “townies” considering a career in agriculture.

Ms Gray secured a job with Riverina Fresh in Northern Victoria but is taking time off to care for a newborn son, Dustyn.

She hopes to own a cattle farm and run a robotic dairy.

“I’ve worked as a travel agent and optical dispenser, but my real passion is farming,” Ms Gray said.

While her dream of owning a property is yet to become a reality, Ms Gray continues to gather a menagerie of animals – including sheep – on her half-acre residential block.

“The teachers at TAFE NSW were incredible: they learn about your story, where you came from and where you want to go, and give you the skills and experience to get there,” she said.

Earlier this year, Australia’s peak farming organisation, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), shared a similar sentiment.

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NFF said TAFE NSW would play a vital role in ensuring the industry had the workforce to meet future demand, with the NFF Roadmap outlining its vision to grow the workforce by 25 per cent over the next decade.

TAFE NSW team leader of agribusiness Jenny O’Donnell said she had noticed a marked increase in students from non-farming backgrounds studying agriculture in recent years.

“There used to be a perception that only those from farming backgrounds entered the agriculture industry, but that has well and truly changed,” Ms O’Donnell said.

“The local ag industry is booming, and strong demand for skilled workers comes with that growth.

“TAFE NSW is proud to be training the agricultural leaders of tomorrow and ensuring they have the practical skills and experience to help the industry thrive.”

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