Productivity introduction

This introduction defines productivity and explores why it is important for farm profitability and competitiveness.

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Productivity defined

Productivity measures the efficiency with which farmers use inputs (such as land, labour, capital, materials and services) to produce outputs (such as crops, livestock and wool).

Productivity growth measures changes in productivity over time. In the long term, productivity growth reflects changes in the efficiency with which farmers use inputs to produce outputs. It is largely driven by technological progress.

Ongoing productivity growth has enabled Australian farmers to maintain profits by producing more output from each unit of input that they use.

Productivity movements over time reflect changes in input and output quantities. Productivity will increase if:

Productivity increases if output increases, while input decreases or remains unchanged; both output and input increase, but output increases at a faster rate; or both output and input decrease, but output decreases at a slower rate. 

The three Ps – production, profit and productivity

Production is the process creating outputs from inputs. Australian farmers produce a wide variety of agricultural commodities. ABARES estimates the gross value of Australian agricultural production was $63.8 billion in 2016-17 (ABARES 2017).

Productivity is the ratio of the quantity of output produced to the quantity of inputs used. Productivity growth over time reflects improvements in the efficiency with which inputs are used to produce output, and is largely independent of trends in prices.

Profit is the difference between total revenue and total cost. Variation in profit over time reflects changes in the quantities and prices of outputs produced and inputs used.

Productivity matters for farm profit

Most farmers are focussed on profit rather than productivity, but the two are closely linked in the long run. Profit is determined by the quantities of inputs used and outputs produced, and by prices paid and received. Farmers generally can’t control the input or output prices they face. To consistently grow profits over time farmers must produce a greater quantity of output from each unit of input they use – i.e. to increase productivity.

Over the past 40 years Australian farmers have faced a general decline over time in output prices relative to input prices—also known as the farmers’ terms of trade. Producing more output with each unit of input has reduced the effect of this cost-price squeeze on farm profits.

Agricultural total factor productivity and farmer terms of trade, Australia, 1948–49 to 2013–14

This graph depicts agricultural total factor productivity and farmer terms of trade in Australia from 1948-49 to 2013-14. 

Source: ABARES; Sheng and Jackson 2015

Productivity growth contributes to higher profits in two main ways:

  • Boost revenue

    Productivity gains can increase the quantity and quality of farm output that can be produced from the inputs available. The past 50 years of productivity growth means Australian farmers currently produce approximately three times more output than they otherwise could (Gray, Leith & Davidson 2014).
  • Reduce production costs

    Continuously adopting new technologies and management practices allows farmers to reduce their input use and cost of production over time. Australian broadacre farmers have reduced total input use (including land, labour and capital) by approximately one per cent a year over the past four decades (Xia et al 2017).

Other benefits

In addition to enhancing profitability, agricultural productivity growth offers several other benefits.

benefits of productivity growth include: Improve international competitiveness, Contribute to econcomic growth, Enhance food security and help meet future challenges 

Key articles

Xia C, Zhao S, Valle H, 2017, Productivity in Australia’s broadacre and dairy industries, in Agricultural Commodities: March quarter 2017, Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics and Sciences, Canberra.

ABARES 2017, Agricultural commodities: March quarter 2017. Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics and Sciences, Canberra.

Sheng and Jackson 2015, A manual for measuring total factor productivity in Australian agriculture, ABARES technical report 15.2, Canberra, October

Gray, EM, Oss-Emer, M and Sheng, Y 2014, Australian agricultural productivity growth: past reforms and future opportunities, ABARES research report 14.2, Canberra, February.

Gray, EM, Leith R, Davision A 2014, Productivity in the broadacre and dairy industries, Agricultural Commodities: March quarter 2014. Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics and Sciences, Canberra.

Zhao S, Sheng Y & Gray EM, 2012, Productivity of the Australian Broadacre and Dairy industries: concept, Methodology and Data, in Productivity Growth in Agriculture: An international Perspective, Editors: K.O. Fuglie, S.L. Wang, V.E. Ball, pp.73-107, CABI, Wallingford.

Gray, E, Jackson T, Zhao S, 2011b, Agricultural Productivity: Concepts, measurement and factors driving it, ABARES report to RIRDC, report number 10/161.

Sheng, Y, Mullen, JD and Zhao, S 2011, A turning point in agricultural productivity: consideration of the causes, ABARES research report 11.4 for the Grains Research and Research and Development Corporation, Canberra, May.

Last reviewed: 21 October 2020
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