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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2003  
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Contents >> Family and Community >> Living arrangements: Farming families

Living arrangements: Farming families

The number of farming families in Australia decreased by 22% between 1986 and 2001.

Farms in Australia have traditionally been family businesses, passed on to successive generations.1 However, since the 1950s, the introduction of new technologies, the globalisation of commodity markets, and the removal of protective tariffs, have contributed to the restructuring of the agricultural industry.2 Due to efficiencies associated with economies of scale, for most commodities increasing farm size is linked to higher rates of return, making larger farms more economically viable than small farms.3 The amalgamation of properties as some farming families leave the industry has resulted in an increase in average farm sizes.3 The reduction in the number of farms and farming families has been one contributor to the population declines in the small towns that have traditionally serviced the farm sector.

For some farming families, farm income has reduced due to declining profit margins, and can be highly variable, requiring some farmers and family members to obtain off-farm employment to supplement and stabilise the family income.2 Stress, overwork and reduced time for family and community activities can affect the wellbeing of farmers and their families.4 The 1990s saw a renewed focus by policy makers and government service providers on the economic, social and personal circumstances of people living in rural Australia, and in particular those living on farms.

Farming in Australia
This article draws on data from the ABS 1986, 1991, 1996 and 2001 Censuses of Population and Housing.

A family is two or more persons, one of whom is at least 15 years of age, who are related by blood, marriage (registered or de facto), adoption, step or fostering, and who are usually resident in the same household.

In this article, farming families are those families where the family reference person, and/or their spouse or partner, reported that their main occupation was a farmer or farm manager.

Farmers in farming families refers to the reference person and/or spouse/partner in a family whose main occupation was a farmer or farm manager. It does not include any other members of the family who were farming.

Farmers and farm managers plan, direct, coordinate and perform farming activities in agricultural establishments. Tasks performed typically include managing and participating in farming operations to breed and raise livestock, produce fish and other aquatic stock, and cultivate crops; managing physical and natural resources; managing business capital, maintaining and evaluating records of farming activities; monitoring market activity and planning production to meet contract requirements or market demand. They include farmers and farm managers who own their farming properties, and those who are employees undertaking these farming activities. Farmers and farm managers are referred to as farmers in this article.

Broadacre farms include sheep, beef, mixed livestock, wheat and other crop farms (such as grains and pulses), and mixed livestock-crop farms.

Families on farms
In 2001, 91% of farmers in Australia were members of a family household. The majority of farms were owned by family-operated businesses, with around 99% of broadacre and dairy farms operated by owner-managers in 2001.5 Over the 15 years to 2001, the number of farming families (that is those families where the reference person and/or spouse or partner reported that their main job was a farmer) declined by 31,800 (22%). The departure of some of these families from farming provided greater opportunity for farm amalgamations.

Farming families may leave agriculture for a variety of reasons, including personal (e.g. retirement), economic (e.g. industry restructuring) or environmental (e.g. drought). That said, between 1986 and 2001, the number of farmers leaving agriculture was greatest during periods of high commodity prices, as land values were high and neighbouring farms had the financial capacity to expand.6 The decline in the number of farming families from 145,000 in 1986 to 120,000 in 1991, was partly influenced by favourable economic conditions. The lower commodity prices in broadacre industries throughout the 1990s resulted in some farmers delaying their decision to retire, leave farming, or hand the farm over to their children.7 As a result, the number of farming families declined by smaller amounts between 1991 and 1996 (5,300), and between 1996 and 2001 (2,400).

Graph - Number of farming families

Source: ABS 1986-2001 Censuses of Population and Housing.

Remoteness Areas
This article uses the ABS Remoteness classification to examine the characteristics of farmers and their families in the six Remoteness Areas. Remoteness is calculated using the road distance to different sized urban centres, where the population size is considered to govern the range and type of services available. The six Remoteness Areas are: Major Cities of Australia; Inner Regional Australia; Outer Regional Australia; Remote Australia; Very Remote Australia and Migratory. The Remoteness Area names used in this article are abbreviated versions of these official names with ‘Australia’ omitted. For further information see Statistical Geography: Volume 1 - Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC), 2001 (ABS cat. no. 1216.0).

Consistent with the notion of farming families living in the country, the greatest proportion of farming families in 2001 lived in Outer Regional areas (46%). That said, more farming families were living in Major Cities (6%) than in Very Remote areas (3%). However, farming families account for a larger proportion of families in Very Remote areas (10%) than Major Cities (0.2%), due to the differing population sizes of these areas. In addition to the level of remoteness, farming families can live on-farm in a rural setting or off-farm within an urban environment, travelling to the farm for work. In 2001, of the 113,000 farming families in Australia, 13% lived in urban areas, with the remainder living in rural areas.

Remoteness Area

Major Cities
Inner Regional
Outer Regional
Very Remote


(a) No farming families were counted in Migratory areas.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.

The distribution of farming families across Australia was highly dependent on the type of farming. In 2001, Flower growers and Vegetable growers were more likely to be living in Major Cities (35%) and Inner Regional areas (41%). This partly reflects the historical need for farmers of fresh produce to have close access to consumers, and that these farms are usually smaller and intensively farmed. Two-thirds of Dairy farming families lived in Inner Regional areas, while over half of Sheep farming families (53%), and Mixed crop and livestock farming families (56%), were living in Outer Regional areas.

Family types
In 2001, over half (54%) of farming families consisted of a couple with children living with them, a greater proportion than for all families (47%). A further 42% of farming families were couple families without children (compared with 36% of all families). Almost two-thirds of these couple-only families were older couples (where the male partner was aged 55 years or over). Young couples without children (where the male partner was aged less than 35 years) accounted for just 4% of farming families compared with 7% of all Australian families. Couples without children may include couples who have children that live away from home, for example to attend boarding school.

Farming families
All families

Couple family with children
Eldest child aged under 15 years
Eldest child aged 15 years or over
Couple family without children(a)
Male partner aged under 35 years
Male partner aged 55 years or over
One-parent family
Eldest child aged under 15 years
Eldest child aged 15 years or over


(a) Includes couple families without children not specified.
(b) Includes other family types not specified.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.

The lower proportion of young couples without children among farming families is likely to be due to fewer young people entering agriculture as a vocation,6 and the loss of young people out of country areas reducing the number of children taking over the family farm (see Australian Social Trends 2003, Youth migration within Australia). In addition, the capital required to enter farming may be a barrier to young couples wanting to take up farming.

In 2001, the proportion of one-parent families among farming families (3%) was lower than that of all families (15%), suggesting fewer separations and divorces among farming families. However, the lower proportion of one-parent families may also reflect a tendency for lone parents (who are predominantly women) to leave the farm after separating. The other parent (usually the father) becomes a lone person, no longer classified as a farming family.

Those farming families with children tended to have more children than all families with children. In 2001, there was an average of 2.1 children aged less than 15 years living in farming families with children, compared with 1.8 in all families with children. The majority of farming families live in Inner Regional, Outer Regional and Remote areas, where fertility is higher than total Australian fertility. In addition, women tend to have children at a younger age in these areas,8 and when combined with the older age profile of female parents in farming families, this may result in farming families generally being closer to completing their total childbearing than all families.

In 2001, farming families were less likely than all families to be living in a multi-family household (1% and 3% respectively). However, it is possible for successive generations of families to operate the same farm and live in separate households on the property.

Ageing farmers
Farmers often work well beyond the traditional retirement age, with 15% of farmers in farming families being aged 65 years and over in 2001. The proportion of farmers aged 65 years and over in farming families was greater than the proportion aged less than 35 years (12%). In contrast, in 1986, 9% of farmers in farming families were aged 65 years and over, compared with 19% who were aged less than 35 years. Reflecting this shift, the median age of farmers in farming families increased from 47 years in 1986 to 51 years in 2001. This is consistent with the overall trend among young people to delay marriage and parenting, and an increasing propensity to participate in higher education, which have contributed to general population ageing in Australia (see Australian Social Trends 2002, Fertility futures). In addition to farmers partnering at a later age, fewer young people are becoming farmers.

Graph - Age profile of farmers in farming families

Source: ABS 1986 and 2001 Censuses of Population and Housing.

Women in farming
Since European settlement of Australia, the involvement of women in farming has been relatively unacknowledged.10 The role of women in farming has ranged from livestock care to business management. Women tend to spend less hours on farm work than men, although they may cook for farm workers or undertake farm-related book keeping and not report this in the census. Women also complete most of the household work and child care in farming families.11 Further, women may support farming families through gaining off-farm employment to supplement and stabilise family income.

In 2001, one-third (52,500) of farmers in farming families were women. The number of female farmers in farming families decreased by 20,800 between 1986 and 2001. As the total farming population also declined over this period, the proportion of female farmers in farming families remained relatively stable. The majority of female farmers in farming families had male partners who also farmed (87%). Few women were farmers when their male spouse or partner was not (10%), and even fewer female farmers were lone parents (3%).

Off-farm income
Over the last two decades Australian farming families have become increasingly dependent on off-farm income to maintain their standard of living.6 During times of financial hardship, off-farm income can moderate the effect of a reduction or variability in farm income.

In 2000-01 average off-farm income from all sources was valued at $29,300 for broadacre farms and $35,700 for dairy farms (just under half of the average total family income). Small farms with lower incomes, rather than medium or larger farms, are more likely to be dependent on off-farm income.7 Over the past two decades broadacre farmers experienced a greater rise in average off-farm income than dairy farmers.7

Consistent with the shift towards two income families, and the trend towards part-time farming in other developed countries, a major part of off-farm income comes from off-farm employment.7 In 2000-01, spouses (mostly women) on broadacre and dairy farms were more likely than owner-managers to participate in off-farm employment (29% and 17% respectively).9 However, these participation rates do not include those who are self-employed away from the farm.

Farm type
Average annual net income per farm

Farm income
Off-farm income(b)

Total family income

(a) For broadacre and dairy farms with an Estimated Value of Agricultural Operations of $22,500 or more per year (representing 73% of farms of this size).
(b) Includes income earned off-farm from wages and salaries, investments and social security payments.

Source: ABARE 2003, Australian Farm Surveys Report 2002.

Estimated Value of Agricultural Operations is an estimation of agricultural activity undertaken by an agricultural establishment measured by three-year average weighted prices applied to livestock turnoff and livestock numbers on the farm, and to area and production data for crops.

Family income and hours worked
Overall, the distribution of income (from all sources) for farming families is similar to that for all families. A little over half of farming families (54%) had a weekly gross family income between $400 and $1,199, compared with 48% of all families. In the higher family income categories ($1,200 per week and over), 32% of farming families received this amount compared with 37% of all families. A greater proportion of farming families reported a negative income (3%) compared with all families (0.2%).

Graph - Income distribution for farming families and all families

(a) Income from all sources.
(b) Families where one or more persons did not state their income were excluded prior to the calculation of percentages.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.

In 2001, 59% of farmers in farming families worked 49 hours or more per week. This compares with 19% of all employed people who spent this amount of time working per week. Just over 85% of farmers in farming families are self-employed (i.e. employers, own account workers and contributing family workers). The remainder are employees on farms, many of whom are likely to be employees of their own small, incorporated companies. In general, self-employed people are more likely to work very long hours than those who are employed (see Australian Social Trends 2003, Longer working hours). In 2001, farmers in farming families worked a median of 51 hours per week (including time spent on off-farm work), compared with 41 hours for all self-employed people (in all jobs).

Although in 2001 the majority of farmers in farming families continued to work in excess of 49 hours per week (59%), the proportion doing so had declined since 1986 (63%). The proportion of farmers in farming families working 41 to 48 hours per week also decreased from 13% to 7%.

Graph - Hours worked per week: farmers in farming families

(a) Persons who did not state hours worked were excluded prior to the calculation of percentages.

Source: ABS 1986 and 2001 Censuses of Population and Housing.

Information technology use
Computers and the internet are increasingly useful to all businesses, including farms, for record-keeping, organising business activities, and receiving and sending information. In farming families, computers and the internet can also provide social contact and be used as an educational resource for children. In 2000, a study found that farming families connected to the internet used it primarily for weather reports, market analysis, and educational and banking services.12

At June 2000, among Australian farms with an estimated value of agricultural operations of $5,000 or more, 58% used a computer, and 34% used the internet, an increase on the previous year.13 As farm size (measured by the estimated value of agricultural operations) increased, the proportion using computers and the internet also increased. The proportion of farms using computers and the internet was not uniform across all states and territories. The Northern Territory reported both the highest proportion of farms using a computer (71%) and the highest proportion of farms using the internet (49%). Farms in New South Wales reported the lowest use for both computers and the internet (53% and 31% respectively).13

Within farming families in 2001, people aged 15 to 24 years were the most likely to use both a computer (66%) and the Internet (45%) at home. The overall pattern of technology use among members of farming families was similar to that for the total population - those aged between 15 and 24 years were the most likely to use a computer (61%) or the Internet (44%) at home (see Australian Social Trends 2003, Household use of computers and the Internet). From the age of 45 years, use of computers and the Internet in farming families (and for the total population) generally declined.

Graph - Use of computers and the Internet at home by people in farming families - 2001

(a) Persons who did not state their use of computers or the Internet were excluded prior to the calculation of percentages.

Source: ABS 2001 Census of Population and Housing.

1 Reeve, I. 2001, Australian Farmers Attitudes to Rural Environmental Issues: 1991-2000, Report to Land and Water Australia, Institute for Rural Futures, University of New England, Armidale.
2 Garnaut, J. and Lim-Applegate, H., 1998, People in Farming, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) Research Report 98.6, ABARE, Canberra.
3 Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics 2003, Media Release: Trend towards larger farms likely to continue, 11 July 2002 < outsidetest/pages/media/2002/11July1%20.htm>, accessed 16 January 2003.
4 Humphreys, J. 2000, 'Rural Families and Rural Health' in Journal of Family Studies, Vol. 6, No.2, October 2000, pp. 167-181.
5 Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics 2003, Australian Farm Surveys Report 2002, ABARE, Canberra.
6 National Land and Water Resources Audit (NLWRA) 2001, Australians and Natural Resource Management 2002, NLWRA, Canberra.
7 Barr, N. 2000, Structural Change in Australian Agriculture: Implications for Natural Resource Management, Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria.
8 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2002, Births, Australia, 2001, cat. no. 3301.0, ABS, Canberra.
9 Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 2001 Australian Farm Surveys.
10 Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics 1999, Farmers at work: the gender division, ABARE, Canberra.
11 Alston, M. 1995, Women on the Land - the hidden heart of rural Australia, UNSW Press, Kensington, NSW.
12 Farm Management 500 Project 'On-line services considered most useful by FM500 members', < ITdec00.html#Toc505595898>, accessed 5 March 2003.
13 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Use of Information Technology on Farms, Australia, June 2000, cat. no. 8150.0, ABS, Canberra.

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