How many farmers are there in Australia?

How many farmers are there in Australia, and how has the number changed over time?

The answer to a simple question like this would normally come from official government statistics – in Australia’s case the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There has been regular changes over time in how the ABS defines and counts farmers, with the consequence being that there is no consistent time series of farmer numbers. In fact, if you believe the ABS the number of farmers in Australia jumped by almost 25,000 in 2005, despite a steady annual decline in numbers over the previous two decades. Even more surprising is the reported fact that the area of land used for farming in Australia jumped by almost 10 million hectares during 2010–11, again a reversal of a long-term trend in the opposite direction.

Agricultural statistics are critically important for many of the decisions that are made by governments, industry organisations and individual business managers. Think of some of the really complex issues that confront Australian agriculture at the moment, and at their core lie questions that government and industry need to have accurate answers for. Examples include: ‘How much water is used for irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin?’; ‘How much nitrogen fertiliser is used on Australian farms?’; ‘How profitable are Australian horticultural farms?’; ‘How much Australian farm land is foreign owned?’. These questions are at the core of issues such as water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, greenhouse emissions from agriculture, the market power of Australian grocery retailers, and the role of foreign investment in agriculture. They highlight the importance of a comprehensive, robust and independent national agricultural statistics system.

Recognising how critical agricultural statistics are to some of the major policy decisions currently being made by government, the Australian Farm Institute has carried out research to examine the adequacy of the Australian agricultural statistical system. The results of that research will soon be released.

The research involved a comparison of the agricultural statistics system in Australia with the systems maintained by the United States (US) and France. These two were chosen because they both involve federal-type systems, where responsibilities are shared between the national government and state or provincial governments.

The research initially involved an examination of the administrative structures and resources available to each nation's agricultural statistics system. While both the US and France have substantial farm subsidy and support systems that necessitate the collection of extra data, it was still somewhat surprising to discover that Australia spends less than one-tenth the amount of money that either the US or France does on their agricultural statistical systems, even when compared on a per farm business or per dollar of agricultural GDP basis.

The research then compared the range of statistical ‘products’ generated by each of the three statistical systems. These include the national agricultural census that each nation carries out, plus the range of other reports and regular surveys carried out by each relevant national organisation.

Some quite important differences were identified between the three national agricultural statistics systems, and a number of recommendations were made that should enhance the Australian system.

The report will be available from the Institute from late August. Please contact the Institute for more information.

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