Concern about access to labor has been a longstanding issue in Australian agriculture.
The situation deteriorated during the covid-19 pandemic as the nation all but closed itself to the world (and internal state and territory borders also slammed shut) meaning the usual influx of seasonal workers and backpackers dried up.
In August last year the Food Supply Chain Alliance, a grouping of industry bodies that includes the National Farmers Federation, the Australian Meat Industry Council and others, called on the Australian government to develop a national strategy that would help find the estimated 172,000 workers needed to fill current vacancies and future-proof the sector.
Worker shortages made the harvest more difficult in many parts of the country for the third year in a row – and while the government did introduce some changes to migration policies at its inaugural Jobs and Skills Summit in September last year, it seems unlikely to alleviate all concerns.
It’s that context that ensures a recent pitch by a consortium of private investors to acquire Longreach Pastoral College in Queensland makes perfect sense.
The consortium is being led by AAM Investment Group and its managing director Garry Edwards, with backing from a host of large cattle companies including the QIC-managed North Australian Pastoral Company and the venerable Consolidated Pastoral Company.
It is set to submit a formal tender for the facility this month, as part of a sale process being conducted by the Queensland government. The bid would see the consortium acquire the 17,511 ha of land adjoining the college site, as well as its classroom and accommodation facilities and other on-site infrastructure.
The college closed in 2019, leaving a gap in Queensland’s (and the broader agriculture sector’s) ability to train the next generation of farm workers.
As Edwards said in a statement last week: “When Longreach Pastoral College was closed in 2019 it highlighted a major problem in Queensland in the need for modernization and relevance of agricultural training. Losing facilities like this leave a gaping hole in the state’s capacity to develop the skills of the workforce required by Australia’s thriving farm sector and took away what had, for more than half a century, been part of the lifeblood of the Longreach community.
“As part of our collective vision, the companies involved in the private consortium believe that the Longreach Pastoral College can be rejuvenated to become a trustworthy, viable and intergenerational learning centre, not unlike the renowned Marcus Oldham College in Victoria, offering a range of certified educational and training courses, whilst incorporating local tourism activities and educational activities for primary and high school students who don’t have the chance for exposure to regional Australia and our agricultural industries.”
It’s an unusual proposal and, if successful, could provide a good example of what private capital can do to help the broader agriculture sector thrive. The industry needs a huge range of skills – and for private capital to get involved directly in owning and funding training makes good business sense.