Australia's deputy prime minister on Tuesday urged the country's A$1.8 trillion ($1.3 trillion) pension fund industry to boost its investment in agriculture as the sector gears up to meet strong demand from Asia.

While foreign interest in Australian agriculture has soared, Barnaby Joyce, who is also the agriculture minister, said it was baffling that local pension funds had just 0.3 percent of their total investment portfolio in the growing sector.

"We have to make sure that we create a culture where investment in the agriculture portfolio is just as logical as investment in the iron ore portfolio or coal portfolio," Joyce said at the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) conference.

Australia's second-biggest export earner behind iron ore, shipments of agricultural produce are forecast to hit a record A$45 billion next year, but the industry is facing a shortage of investment.

"Improving productivity will be critical to the success of Australian agriculture on world markets. That's going to require investment across the board - in land, in technology and in our people," said Karen Schneider, executive director of ABARES.

First State Super, Australia's third-largest superannuation fund with A$52 billion under management, is one of the few to dip its toe into agriculture with around A$300 million to A$400 million worth of assets and a plan to double that within five years.

"Agriculture is only starting to get going as an institutional asset class, behind infrastructure and real estate," Damien Webb, First State Super's head of income and real assets, told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.

"I see a lot of potential and the support is verifiable. We have a rising middle class in Asia, a greater need for protein whether it is meat, almonds or milk, and Australia is in a good position to produce that."

The First State fund has so far been buying sale and lease-backed assets, often seen as a conservative entry point, such as buying the water titles attached to a farmers' land.

Webb said the investments generated high single-digit returns, similar to those of a high yield bonds.

In contrast to Australia's pension fund industry, Canada's Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan Board and Public Sector Pension Investment Board both acquired Australian agricultural assets last year.

The Australian government, however, is tightening rules over foreign ownership of rural land amid a public backlash and concerns over food security.

Australia in November rejected a deal to sell land the size of South Korea to Chinese bidders, although it last week approved the sale of the country's largest dairy to a Chinese firm.