Economic trends and drivers affecting the grainbelt of Western Australia to 2030

David J. Pannell

CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity and
School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Western Australia

Ross Kingwell

Department of Agriculture Western Australia


A majority of the farm businesses in Western Australia remain profitable, with rates of return comparable to non-farming sectors. However, there is continuing pressure on poor performing farms, as well as a range of social pressures, which mean that there will continue to be a steady fall in the number of farms in the grainbelt of Western Australia. Most remaining farms will continue to be profitable, due in significant part to successful R&D. Farms will continue to be highly diversified. We expect the real prices of most agricultural commodities to continue to fall, although we note predictions for meat prices to rise in the medium to long term. Key uncertainties about price trends include: future levels of agricultural protection in developed counties; the levels of price premiums for "green" products; the rates of productivity improvement for agriculture in developing countries; and energy prices. Key uncertainties about R&D/technology include the availability of funds for R&D; and the contributions of biotechnologies. Use of information technologies will increase, though not as much as some expect, and in some cases driven by shortages of skilled farm labour rather than production advantages. The fundamental elements of managing a farm have altered little, and we do not expect them to change in the next 25 years. Successful farm management will continue to depend largely on good decisions about the farm's enterprise mix, machinery replacement, land leasing or purchase, labour hiring and off-farm investments. Agricultural R&D should continue to address a diversified portfolio of issues, including attention to environmental issues, but not neglecting the need for ongoing productivity improvements in agriculture.


In prepared this paper, we have attempted to maintain an awareness of the pitfalls that await people who speculate about the future. One peril is the certainty that specific predictions beyond the short-term future are likely to be wrong (Freebairn, 1975; Godden, 1999; McCalla and Revoredo, 2001). For example, consider the views, from less than a decade ago, of leading agriculturalists speaking about broadacre agricultural industries in Western Australia.

"I anticipate there will be 100,000 hectares of yellow lupins grown in 10 years time." (p. 33) (Cowling, 1995)

"I believe that in 2005 we will be producing no more than 4 million ha of cereals, perhaps 1 million ha of lupins and about 1 million ha of other broadleaf crops." (p.96) (Perry, 1995)

The actual outcomes for 2003 were around 1,000 hectares of yellow lupins and 6.35 million hectares of cereals. The intended time frame for this paper is 25 years, so we approach the task with high expectations that at some future time our speculations will also be used to illustrate the how wrong one can be.

The second trap for writers on the future is the temptation to cover the full diversity of issues that will affect the future. We recognise that there are many potentially relevant issues, but we have attempted to retain a relatively narrow focus, based around factors that directly affect the business decisions of farmers.

The paper begins with general background on broadacre agriculture in Western Australia, and then discusses likely drivers of change in the future. Changes that currently appear relatively likely are suggested. The paper ends with discussion of some implications for agricultural R&D.

Background on broadacre agricultural businesses in Western Australia

Profitability and farm numbers

A majority of the farm businesses in Western Australia remain profitable (BankWest 2003). For example, in spite of the poor seasons in 1998, 2000 and 2002 in many agricultural districts, farm businesses in the broadacre region of Western Australia averaged a rate of return to capital of around 2 per cent over the period 1998/9 to 2002/3 (BankWest 2003) (e.g. see Figure 1). The top 25 per cent of farm businesses averaged a rate of return to capital of 8.1 per cent over the same period.

Figure 1: Farm businesses’ average nominal rate of return to capital in the central agricultural region: 1989 to 2002. (Source: Based on ABARE farm survey data.)

Carroll (2003) has compared the relative capital gain of an investment in farmland compared to one in listed property trusts or a diversified share portfolio represented by the all ordinaries index. He found that for the period 1987 to 2002 the compound growth for farmland value was 5.1 per cent per annum compared to a compound growth of 2.9 per cent and 5.4 per cent per annum for the listed property trusts and the all ordinaries index respectively. Hence, on capital gain alone investment in farmland is a relatively attractive investment.

Although Carroll used national data, local ABARE farm survey data (e.g. ABARE, 2003) and Valuer-General data show that broadacre farms in Western Australia achieve average rates of capital appreciation typically between 3 to 7 per cent per annum. For example, the shires of Merredin, Moora, Perenjori, Narrogin, Kojonup, Dumbleyung and Esperance (Scadden zone) shown in Figure 2 have recorded compound growth rates in farmland values of 5.1, 6.1, 6.5, 3.2, 4.0, 4.2 and 5.9 per cent per annum respectively over the period 1985 to 2001.

Figure 2: Land values in key shires in the broadacre region of Western Australia: 1985 to 2001 ($/ha). (Source: Based on data supplied by the Office of the Valuer General.)

Although broadacre farming in Western Australia has been profitable for most businesses, there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of farm businesses operating (Figure 3). There are now around 6030 farm businesses in the broadacre (wheatbelt) region (ABARE, 2003). The bottom quartile of farm businesses are under sustained financial pressure and many of them will eventually leave the industry (Alexander, 2002). BankWest (2003) data show that the bottom quartile of broadacre farm businesses in Western Australia generated a rate of return to capital of -4.9 per cent per annum over the period 1998/9 to 2002/3. Average equity for this group was 82 per cent, so if they are forced to sell up, most have sufficient equity to ease the family’s transition.

Figure 3: Number of farm businesses in the broadacre region of Western Australia: 1989/90 to 2001/2. (Source: Based on ABARE farm survey data available on AgSurf.)

The other main driver of farm sales is a lack of family members seeking succession of the farm business.

The distribution of wealth and size of farms is highly skewed. Grain delivery data reveal that around 14 per cent of grain growers deliver over a third of the State’s grain and that a quarter of grain growers deliver over 54 per cent. Similarly, over the period 1997/8 to 1999/2000, WoolDesk data reveals that approximately 14 per cent of woolgrowers in Western Australia produced half of the State’s wool.

Increasing farm size increases the demands on farm management. So too do increases in the range of crop types, crop management methods and animal breeds now available. The resulting tendency is for farming systems and farm businesses to become more complex, requiring more sophisticated management or at least greater reliance on advisory services.

Enterprise Diversity

Most broadacre agricultural businesses engage in a portfolio of enterprises. There are number of factors that influence this diversity, and all of these will operate into the future.

  1. Product complementarity can increase the benefits of diversification. Examples of positive interactions in broadacre farming include nitrogen supplied by leguminous pastures or crops to following cereal or oilseed phases; the disease and weed break advantages that one phase of a rotation bestows on a subsequent phase, and the wind-break and shelter benefits for livestock provided by tree belts (Morrison et al., 1986; Pannell, 1987).
  2. Most farmers are averse to risks (Bardsley and Harris, 1987; Bond and Wonder, 1980), and diversification can be an effective risk management strategy (Samuelson, 1967), although in Western Australia this is probably a less important driver of diversification than the other factors described here (Pannell et al., 2000).
  3. Land heterogeneity results in certain enterprises being agronomically better suited to different parts of the farm landscape.
  4. Fixity of some farm assets, at least in the short run, restricts the profitable range of selection of some enterprises and thereby encourages diversification. For example, a farmer with relatively small machinery (and hence a relatively long seeding program), may find that the lower yields obtained for later sown crops are insufficient.

The trend to increasing farm size tends to reinforce the last three of these factors in their influence on diversification.

Diversified farm businesses in Western Australia have proved resilient and profitable. Diversity has enabled businesses to cope with variation in climate and to capitalise on changes in the relative prices of agricultural commodities. It has enabled generations of farmers to be equipped with a range of management skills, created flexibility and supported entrepreneurial action. These positive outcomes are likely to continue and will encourage farm businesses in the future to remain mostly characterised by enterprise diversity.

Notwithstanding its size, success and focus on external markets, the region’s agricultural industry is only a minor contributor to world agriculture and commodity trade. The region produces less than 1 per cent of the world’s wheat, less than 6 per cent of the world’s apparel wool, and less than 1 per cent of most other major products such as sheep meat and canola. For this reason, farm businesses in the region may be able to exploit niche markets at times, but in general they will be be price-takers on international markets.

What will drive farm-level decisions?

Prices and costs

Prices for freely traded commodities are determined by the balance between international supply and demand. Globally, demand for agricultural products has risen steadily over time, reflecting increases in population and wealth but, in general, increases in supply have been even more pronounced, so that over the long term, the ratio of output prices to input costs has tended to fall (Figure 4). This phenomenon is variously referred to as the "cost-price squeeze", declining terms of trade since, or falling real output prices. The trend is a decline of around 2.2 per cent per annum.

There have at times been predictions that this long-term trend had run its course and would soon be reversed, but so far all such predictions have proven wrong. With moderation in world population growth now evident, continuing technological progress in developed countries (e.g. biotechnology), and evidence of improving agricultural productivity in many parts of the developing world, we judge that continuing declines in real prices of agricultural commodities over the next 30 years are likely. This creates an imperative for continuing productivity improvements (see next section) to ensure the ongoing economic health of broadacre farming.

If there are real price increases, they appear most likely to occur for meat products, in response to increasing demand in developing countries. For example, CIE (2001) predicts the following increases in meat prices by 2020: beef 72%, sheep 33%, pork 27%, poultry 6%.

Figure 4: Farmers’ terms of trade. Base year 1997-8 = 100. (Source: ABARE, 2003)

Apart from the general trend and fluctuations in different prices, in recent decades there have been several key changes in markets and marketing that will have an enduring impact on broadacre agriculture.

We identify the following main unknowns in the area of prices and costs over the next 30 years.

Yields, new technologies and productivity

Broadacre farmers in Western Australia have experienced particularly high levels of productivity growth in grain production compared with producers from many other regions, with average per grain farm productivity growth of 3.5 per cent per annum, over 21 years up to 1998-1999 (Ha and Chapman, 2000). By contrast sheep specialist, beef specialist and sheep-beef specialist farms recorded productivity annual productivity growth of only 0.6, 2.1 and 1.4 per cent over the same period.

Improvements in productivity may arise through technological advances, improvements in management and through exploiting economies of size. Major technical advances in the last two decades have included the following.

The crucial role that increasing productivity plays in the economic viability of agriculture is starkly illustrated in Figure 5. It shows that productivity growth in Western Australian agriculture has more than offset falls in real prices since 1953. Accumulated productivity improvements since 1953 now constitute most of the gross value of production for agriculture.

Figure 5: Gross value of agricultural production (GVP) in Western Australia, showing that portion due to accumulated productivity improvement. (Source: John Mullen, pers. comm., 2004, based on Mullen, 2002).

Among current efforts to develop agricultural innovations, those of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity appear particularly significant. If successful, they will initiate a significant shift towards the production systems based on new perennial plants (pastures, shrubs, trees and possibly grain crops), partly replacing existing annual plants which currently dominate agriculture. They will also provide improved options for production on salt-affected land, which is forecast to continue to increase in extent. How successful the CRC is in moderating productivity loss due to salinity remains to be seen.

Another prominent environmental concern is climate change. Change in rainfall has already been detected for south-west Western Australia (Foster, 2004). Forecast further changes (Foster, 2002) include the following.

Given the uncertainties of climate change, the precision of such predictions is necessarily low. In any case, the predicted onset of climate change is likely to be gradual, so incremental technological improvement and plant breeding improvements will lessen the severity of any negative impacts on agriculture.

Other key unknowns in this area over the next 25 years include the following.


We have discussed policy changes in relation to marketing bodies and a potential change in R&D funding. Another area where policy may change is in relation to environmental issues. There is a well-documented tendency for rising living standards to result in greater emphasis on environmental concerns, and this trend appears to be playing out in Australia, at least over the long term.

There is plenty in agriculture to concern those who are sensitive to the environment, including:

Efforts to enhance the environmental performance of agriculture through the National Landcare Program, the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality have been criticised on various grounds, including their failure to deal effectively with the more substantial of the above issues. One can easily imagine social and political pressures for a further raising of the environmental standards expected of agriculture. Resulting policy tools, whether positive (subsidy based) or negative (penalty based), if substantial enough, could play a major role in shaping future agriculture.

On the other hand, the cost of dealing comprehensively with the above set of environmental issue would be many times greater than the public funds currently available through the main policy programs. It may be that public funds continue to play a marginal role in protecting or enhancing the rural environment. We would not be surprised to observe this. We also do not expect a dramatic increase in environmental regulation governing agriculture. The economic and social costs to rural areas would be so high that the political costs seem likely to outweigh the political benefits.

Personal and family goals

A number of factors have contributed to the exodus of families (both farming and non-farming) from rural areas. Most farm businesses continue to be owned and operated by farm families. However, farm families have needed to make decisions from which they hoped to benefit financially. Among these decisions have been those involved adoption of labour-saving technologies and increases in farm size that together have reduced opportunities for on-farm employment and reduced the number of farm families. Further, the dominance of agriculture in the broadacre region has meant limited employment opportunities outside of agriculture in the region.

Rationalisation of government services in rural regions has further lessened employment opportunities, and this, combined with the decline in agricultural employment, has fuelled de-population pressures in many inland rural areas of Western Australia. For example, on the national scale, total employment in small inland towns dependent on agriculture declined by 7 per cent from 1986 to 1996 (Garnaut et al., 2001).

Other factors contributing to the exodus of labour from rural areas include:

Countering the social, economic and government policy pressures that encourage depopulation is extremely difficult. Attempts to reverse a local decline can often be at the expense of some other adjacent region.

One observable trend is for some farm families to reside in metropolitan areas or large coastal regional centres, with the farm manager commuting to the farm for only part of each week. Perhaps this trend will increase if inland rural areas continue to become less attractive places for families to live.

A further consequence of lower rural populations is likely to be even greater difficulty in delivering environmental outcomes that are not closely linked to production benefits. The traditional reliance on voluntary contributions to environmental protection is less tenable as the resident population falls.

Some speculations

After examining the views of various futurists and findings of management studies (e.g. Coates et al., 1998; Karpin, 1995; Coopers and Lybrand, 1995a, 1995b; Kohl, 2001), Kingwell (2002) concluded that in coming decades broadacre farming is likely to become characterised by:

The combination of high equity of many farm businesses, smaller family size, family break-up pressures and more investment choices outside the business, means a fine balance will have to be maintained regarding the financial and social viability of the farm business. Tensions between the achievement of financial and social goals will prompt some farmers to leave the industry. Others will adapt in an attempt to achieve both ends (e.g. fly-in-fly-out farm management).

Future farm management may depend to an increasing extent on sophisticated information technology. However, on the basis of history, we suggest that change in this direction will not be as great as some expect. As Malcolm (2000, p. 40) observes: 'A glance through history suggests that in the most important ways, the fundamental elements of managing a farm has altered little.' Successful farm management will continue to be dependent largely on good decisions about the farm's enterprise mix, machinery replacement, land leasing or purchase, labour hiring and off-farm investments.

Implications for R&D

We suggest that the foregoing discussion has the following key implications for agricultural R&D in Western Australia.


Sincere thanks to John Mullen for providing Figure 5.


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Citation: Pannell, D.J. and Kingwell, R.S. (2004). Economic trends and drivers affecting the grainbelt of Western Australia to 2035, Future Broadacre Agricultural Landscapes Conference, June 15-17 2004.

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