Upbeat family farms drive good times investing leap; ANZ says spend $200b more


Farmers are enjoying what the ANZ Banking Group is describing as, arguably, Australian agriculture's strongest, most globally competitive position ever.

However, the sector needs an investment boost of $240 billion to $400b to make the most of the good times before others catch up.

In the space of 10 years our farm sector has grown in a way few could have predicted to now enjoy an outlook of "positivity and immense possibilities", according to a special ANZ agribusiness report.

Notably, family farms had turned around to become an impressive force behind the industry's growth and investment drive.

Despite the savage impact of eastern states drought over multiple seasons in the past decade, and this year's floods, the bank's Greener Pastures 2 investigation noted how our national agricultural picture had shifted fundamentally thanks to fast changing global circumstances combined with "stringent and positive action by many people across the industry".

Those players' efforts were fortuitously supported by an extended run of strong prices for most agricultural commodities, recent good production seasons, rising overseas capital inflows into the industry, falling interest rates and lower trade barriers to our exports.

Farmers had also emerged more sophisticated from challenging local market deregulation and global trade reforms of the late 20th Century, said the report's lead author, Michael Whitehead.

"Australian agriculture has reached greater structural efficiency, resilience, and innovation," he said.

"Leading family farming operations have become multi-generational, more innovative, and are growing through consolidation."

By 2022 industry-wide sentiment and farm family businesses had evolved significantly from the frustrated moods of 10 to 20 years ago "when the kids didn't want to come home and farmers were often protesting in the streets or looking to sell up and move out".

Mr Whitehead said at the start of the last decade farmers' average age was in the mid-60s and concern was widespread about who would take over their farms and Australia's falling innovation, efficiency challenges and rising costs in comparison with our export rivals.

Australia's best ever ag era needs $200b investment boost says ANZ.

Investment revival

What actually happened was an investment revival totalling about $212b by 2020, more than two thirds of which came from local sources.

Family farms gained strength on the back of advances in agricultural technology, more sophisticated operating structures, rising commodity prices, and, particularly in recent years, more regional job opportunities.

Australia had reaped big benefits from a new period of global capital flows into agricultural production and supply chains, while relatively harmonious diplomatic relations and our good agricultural trade reputation helped us gain a strong footing in new export markets in Asia and the Middle East.

Now ANZ estimated, based on current three per cent annual export growth trends, farm sector exports could achieve a cumulative gain of $82b in extra sales by 2030.

If good seasonal conditions and markets prevailed and the industry was able to meet its "optimistic" $100b farmgate productivity goal by 2030, the bank tipped export growth would be climbing at more than 5pc a year, or gain a cumulative $153b by the decade's end.

However, Mr Whitehead, ANZ's agricultural insights executive director, estimated just to maintain Australian agriculture's current forecast growth required backing from about $240b in extra investment by 2030.

That figure needed to balloon to $417b if farmgate production was to reach its $100b annual target.

Move fast

The industry was aware Australia's trade rivals would inevitably see growth in their own supply and export systems before long and therefore must move fast to beat that competition.

"Our agricultural production volumes will also come off their current highs at some point," Mr Whitehead said.

The Greener Pastures 2 report comes a decade after ANZ's landmark inaugural Greener Pastures document had projected a need for $151b in investment by 2020.

In fact, the past decade's investment surge and leaping prices for meat, dairy, grain and horticultural exports, actually resulted in $212b in extra investment in that period.

About $50b of that spending was foreign investment, led by about $10b from Canada, slightly less from the US, then China, Singapore and Britain in the top five.

Promote discussion

Mr Whitehead said the latest Greener Pastures report wanted to enhance discussion and encourage agriculture to achieve its full potential.

ANZ's five key recommended focus areas were on improving capital flows; embracing agri technology; fully utilising sustainability; improving trade relationships, and boosting advocacy and industry cohesion.

Specific opportunities the report identified ranged from capitalising on likely mergers and growth in domestic superannuation funds and building agricultural investment education, to utilising the emerging agtech sector in mainstream farming to lift business efficiency and relieve labour shortages.

It has also urged the sector to be proactive in the climate conversation, including highlighting where it could play a positive role, and seeking new trade markets, or at least new Middle East and Indian opportunities.

With farms consolidating and total farmer numbers shrinking, peak industry bodies also needed to plan for the future, exploring consolidation, too, and possible commercial partnerships.

Original article written by Andrew Marshall and published in Farm Online, 6 December 2022.

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