Many people believe that for agriculture to become the next boom industry, farmers need to expand their operations, grow more food and preferably use less water.

So can Australia be the food bowl of Asia and still hang onto the family farm?

Jane Griffin-Warwick from the Bureau of Statistics says an estimated 300 farmers are leaving the industry every month.

"We know in 2011 there were 157,000 farmers in Australia, and this is a drop of 110,000 since 1981," she told AM.

"So that works out as a drop of 40 per cent over those 30 years."

Those who have stayed on the land have embraced improved methods and some crops now yield up to 30 per cent more per hectare.

But University of Queensland economics professor John Quiggin says production costs have also risen by up to 30 per cent.

"It's certainly true that there has been this long-running cost price squeeze, which has meant that our farmers have had to improve productivity just to stay in one place [financially]," he said.

"That's been going on very strongly for most of the late 20th century."

Growing bigger, growing leaner

Ms Griffin-Warwick says when it comes to making a profit from modern farming, size matters.

"There's some efficiencies in scale with some types of farming. Bigger farms are more efficient than smaller farms," she said.

Farmer Wayne Newton doubled his land holding on Queensland's Darling Downs to ensure an adequate income.

"On top of that we've intensified our production because we've developed irrigation on both farms to actually maintain some reasonable level of profitability, multiplying that slim margin," he said.

But it was a different matter for Phil Whooper Lane and his wife Mary, who live at Kapunn, west of Dalby in Queensland.

Their children left for the city, so a decade ago they sold the 100-year-old family farm to a company that bought five farms to run as one lean operation.

"We went from probably 10 or 12 tractors from the five holdings to three tractors," Mr Lane told AM. "The five families were taking out X amount of dollars to live, whereas [the company that bought the farms] are only paying three people."

Mr Lane suspects the only way Australia's production will increase is through further consolidation and loss of small holdings like his, but he has no regrets about selling the family farm.

"We all missed it, I suppose," he said. "But if you wanted to give them their farms back, they wouldn't want it. It's too tough."

Agricultural exports increase about 5 per cent a year and are now worth $32.5 billion. Australian governments want that figure to go higher to meet rising Asian demand.

But even if prices improve, there is scepticism from farmers like Peter Clarke from the western Darling Downs.

"I feel confident I could double production of this property. The constraints are obviously our age, and labour," he said.

"Labour is very hard to get here. There's a lot of competition for labour in the middle of a gas field."

 

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