When you aren’t born into a farming family, getting a start in agriculture can be daunting.
- The AgCareerStart program offers industry experience to young people with no farming background
- The program is helping address labour shortages and is rapidly expanding
- Host farmers emphasise the need for continued government funding to ensure the program continues
Eighteen-year-old Tash Handford found this out the hard way.
The teenager from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is taking a “gap year” on a farm near Eidsvold in the North Burnett region.
“I remember the first day,” Tash said.
“I was just bringing the cattle up from the yards and I was shaking and my heart was racing. I think I went home and I said to Dad, ‘I don’t know how they do it. Like, how do you overcome this fear?'”
Before arriving, Tash had no experience working on a farm.
She’s had to face her fears, particularly when it comes to handling cattle, which can be unpredictable for for new hands.
“Because I was so new to it, I just didn’t understand how you overcame it,” she said.
“But then … practice makes perfect. And I’m not perfect by any means, but definitely you sort of get to know them and what they’re going to do.”
The farm owner and Tash’s mentor, Bruce Hutchinson, has been impressed by the young trainee.
“Everything she does, she embraces, which is good,” Bruce said.
“She’s confident — if we ask her things, she never says no or gets sour. She’ll do it.”
Tackling workforce shortages
Bruce and his wife Viv Hutchinson have always lived and worked on the land.
They farm cattle and crops across multiple properties in the North Burnett and Central Queensland regions with their children, and their families.
For years, they’ve struggled to find staff.
“We’ve been looking for a truck driver for 18 months and still haven’t got a truck driver, so that truck is sitting still, unless we can drive it,” Bruce said.
“We’ve been trying to get extra people and staff to help us for three years and it’s nearly impossible to get permanent staff.”
Agriculture in Australia employs almost a quarter of a million people, and contributes more than $90 billion to the national economy.
But for decades, the sector has been plagued by workforce shortages.
National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) program manager Kayla Evans the industry was working to address the issue.
“The AgCareerStart program was born out of … a need for a young talent pipeline to come into our industry and specifically create a way for people with limited experience to have a go in agriculture in a really supported environment,” she said.
The program provides a paid gap year to young people interested in working in agriculture, regardless of their experience.
Participants nominate their areas of interest, and the programs’ coordinators match them with farmers vetted to ensure they can host inexperienced young people.
“They can’t be what they can’t see, and they really struggle to find a way into agriculture, even if they have got the desire,” Kayla said.
“We see all the time in the program young people coming to us saying, ‘I’ve wanted to work in agriculture for so long, but I just can’t figure out how to get a foot in the door’.”
When Bruce and Viv heard about the program, they thought they had nothing to lose.
“I’ve always wanted to give a young person out of the city a chance to see what we enjoy and love, and I thought, well, this is our chance,” Bruce said.
It’s been a big learning curve for Tash.
Among the many skills she’s been learning, Tash has done fencing, welding, drafting and branding cattle, and is currently spending her days operating a tractor worth half a million dollars.
“Tash had never driven a tractor before and we brought her over here a couple of months ago, and said, ‘You’ve got to drive this tractor’,” Bruce said.
“So she hopped on, and just took to it like a duck to water.”
Kayla encouraged other farmers to follow the Hutchinsons’ lead.
“I can’t overstate how important it is to open your farm gate and provide some time and mentoring to a young person,” she said.
“There are young people out there who want to work in agriculture, they just don’t know how to get in.”
This is the second year of the AgCareerStart program.
The first intake saw 28 young people take part, with more than half staying on in their roles and the remainder going on to agriculture-related study or other jobs in the sector.
This year, there are 70 participants, and 100 are lined up for next year.
The NFF, and host farmers like the Hutchinsons, recognise the program is only a small step in filling the thousands of jobs available in agriculture.
But they’re pushing for government funding beyond next year to keep it going.
“We’re hoping that one person that we get, might talk to someone else and then get two people, so it just might multiply,” Bruce said.
When she’s finished the program, Tash wants to live in the country and have a career in agriculture.
“That’s the end goal, I suppose,” she said,
“Raise a little family on a cattle property — that would just make all my dreams come true.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.