Australia’s agriculture sector is facing a workforce crisis. At all levels, there is a shortage of workers, with CEDA’s recent Economic and Political Outlook 2022 identifying record job vacancies and job ads in the farming sector — despite more people moving to regional areas during the pandemic.
With agriculture critical to Australia’s economy, representing 12% of goods and services exports in 2020-21, there is an urgent need to fix the crisis. Agtech plays an important role here, driving efficiencies, productivity and quality. The sector has been identified as key to Australia being competitive in the global market and it’s predicted to become Australia’s next $100 billion industry by 2030.
Women already play a highly significant role in Australia’s agricultural sector. According to ABARES data, they make up 32% of the workforce but the true number is likely to be higher, with women’s contribution not always recognised. Women in regional areas also do significant amounts of volunteer and unpaid work in agriculture and also carry out more domestic labour than women in metro areas.
Women bring a different skill set to agriculture, approaching problems differently and using their strengths to their advantage. They are skilled in building relationships and understanding consumer needs, being the primary visitor to the grocery store themselves and in making food purchasing decisions.
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Roy Morgan identified a 62:38 female-male gender split among grocery shoppers. If you understand what drives consumers’ choices, it makes working in agriculture and agtech much more instinctive as you’re in touch with the demands of the consumer and consequently, the needs of the supply chain.
This is all the more vital given the increasing consumer demand for food provenance information with nutrition company Kerry identifying proactive health concerns at the forefront of purchasing decisions across all generations.
Food is evolving into an arena where a consumer wants to look at a steak and be able to know the precise amount of protein, Omega3 acids and vitamin B12 present in that cut of meat and be confident that it came from a sustainable, local producer.
Female farmers are more likely to engage in sustainable and alternative agriculture. According to Dr Lucie Newsome from the University of New England, women farmers have focused on producing high-quality, niche products rather than large-scale production.
They adapt to changing trends and demands and demonstrate farm transparency and accountability through social media. Instead of dominating nature, they try to work more in harmony with it. Their creative approach to problem-solving makes them highly suited to a career in AgTech.
However, women are still underrepresented in the sector and in STEM fields more broadly. One of the problems is that STEM is considered male-dominated, especially in engineering and technology-based fields. Gender disparity in the field has been well documented, to the extent that the Australian government has a long-term strategy to advance more women in the field.
Women made up less than a quarter of students studying STEM in 2019 (22% of enrolments and 24% of completions of total STEM VET and university enrolments). Five years after graduating, men with a STEM qualification were 1.8 times more likely to be working in a STEM-qualified occupation compared to their female peers.
But this is changing, particularly in regards to agriculture. Women currently comprise 55% of agricultural science degree graduates, though they still only constitute only 31.5% of the professional agricultural services sector. Agtech is a relatively new and growing arena within STEM that would provide these graduates with another viable, lucrative career option. Unlike other sectors within STEM, agtech goes beyond the creation of something physical like a robot or a piece of machinery. It extends into web and app development and technology that assists with refining agricultural practices or making smarter business decisions.
While STEM education can help someone jumpstart their agtech career, industry-defining ideas also come from people who have firsthand knowledge of agricultural work and the common painpoints within the system. A common set up in farming families is male members working on the farm, while female partners work in an occupation that provides steady, reliable income while helping out on the farm where possible. This is crucial to the well-being of the farm as it provides the family with a means of income during situations of drought, flood or poor harvest.
Agtech can harness the latent agricultural expertise these women possess about farming practice to find ways to make a process more efficient or improve productivity. This has the two-fold benefit of incorporating first-hand farming experience into the design and implementation of agtech products, and provides these women with a yearlong, sustainable income that can be invested back into a family farm.
Given Australia’s current challenges around labour and food security, it’s more important than ever that we encourage more intelligent minds — i.e. more women — to help solve the fundamental problem of feeding Australia’s population.
Shae Parsons is the NSW field team manager at MEQ Probe.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.