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Footy and dairy farming: growing the community bedrock

Footy and dairy farming have always worked well for Travis Thompson.

He’s spent 20 years in the industry and has over 300 games of country footy under his belt – and now, well-settled in his third year as farm manager at Binnowee Dairy, just east of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, he’s seeing just how important the connection between the two is.

“Dairying is pretty constant; it’s seven days. You can get caught sitting in your own world a bit on the farm. The footy club is a good place to get away with the whole family. You can play a game of footy and then enjoy socialising with some people who are in the same game as you – milking cows – and know what it’s all about.

“That’s the beauty of any sport associated with small communities.”

It’s a connection that will also be celebrated by the AFL on 11 April when Collingwood and Adelaide clash in the Legendairy Farmer Round, which will highlight the enormous contribution Australia’s dairy farmers make to their communities.

Travis grew up in Warragul, in the heart of dairy country in Gippsland, before his dairy farming parents moved the family to Goulburn Valley, in northern Victoria. He joined the Strathmerton Football Club in the competitive Murray Football League and quickly flourished, making the senior team at just 15.

“I was lucky enough to get a senior game then and the footy was pretty strong. I played about 100 senior games there.”
As a teen, Travis wasn’t particularly interested in following in the family’s footsteps.

“When I was 14 or 15, milking cows was probably the last thing I wanted to do when I left school,” he said.
But dairying didn’t leave him for long.

“I worked as a plumber for a couple of years. I was doing a roof job on a dairy farm and was talking to the guy there, and I thought maybe that’s what I’d actually like doing. That snowballed back into dairying.”

He started sharefarming at age 19, working for himself on farms in the Goulburn Valley. At the same time his footy career continued to rise, and he played five seasons with Murray League rival Numurkah before moving to Shepparton in what many considered to be the cream of Victorian country footy, the Goulburn Valley League.

“Footy was my passion for a long time and I couldn’t get enough of it. I tried to play to the highest level I could, and had a go in a few different leagues.”

In Shepparton he met his wife Sherrene, a keen netballer, and started a family. He worked for an AI company and on several corporate farms before word of mouth reached the ownership group at Binnowee.

“They approached me and wondered if I’d come up here and manage their place,” Travis said. “We’ve not looked back. It’s been a really good move for our family.”

That was three years ago, and Travis, Sherrene and their three kids, all aged under 10, have settled into life on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River.

“I came on board as a farm manager with the knowledge that I’m going to be an owner in the business as we go on. That was a major reason we came, along with the size of the place and its potential.”

The business plans to grow the herd of 500 milking cows to 700 or 800 in the next year.

“I think NSW is potentially in the box seat for milk. There’s some opportunity to tap into the export market a bit more and produce some more milk,” he said.

“We want to expand and milk a few more cows, and we think we’ve got the place to do it. It’s taken us a couple years to get set up; we’ve done some major renovations in the dairy and added more irrigation infrastructure to help us along the way.”

The area is also prime sports country, and he’s been able to continue his footy passion.

Travis and Sherrene joined the Osborne Football Club, a club with a century of history and considerable success, including 12 A-grade premierships between 1991 and 2012. Sherrene plays netball there and coaches as well.

“It’s unique. There’s no town, just a footy oval in the middle of nowhere. It’s got an unbelievable community following and it’s a very successful club. It really is the hub of that whole area. They’re limited in what resources they have but jeez they come together well on a Saturday.”

Club members have donated time and supplies to build facilities, and Travis says this kind of spirit makes it worthwhile.

“For the first half of my career I didn’t see that side of the footy club. It’s when you’ve played a fair bit you realise a hell of a lot of people put in a lot of time for nothing. It’s all built on the community. Now I’m in the phase of putting back into the footy club.”

He’s enjoyed helping to coach some of the up-and-coming seniors and watch their success.

“The good memories through football are that you meet a lot of lifelong friends. I’d be quite happy to walk back into any of those clubs on a social Saturday. It’s like you’ve never left.”

It’s not just the camaraderie that Travis appreciates.

When there’s a disaster like floods, fires, or an accident or death in the community, you find that the footy club’s the first place that you go to for help. Or the club organises 10 blokes to go and fix something if it’s broken.”

There’s one break, however, they might not be able to fix; a broken ankle sidelined Travis last season and may end his career on the field at age 41. But don’t count him out.

“If I can get my ankle right I’ll probably play a few more games,” he said.

And if not? Well, between coaching youngsters and life on the farm, he’ll be plenty happy.

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