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Local footy and farming legend makes his mark

Dairy farmer Chris Rowntree has been in the game a long time.

That’s the dairy game and the footy game.

Born onto the family farm in Myponga, South Australia, the 53-year-old has spent his whole life in the dairy industry. He’s also spent much of it kicking goals for the heralded local Myponga-Sellicks Football Club, racking up 571 games
for the Mudlarks – including 321 in the A-grade – before hanging up his boots about 10 years ago.

But, he’s still passionate about his footy.

Which is why he’s counting down to April 11 when the AFL will be celebrating Australia’s dedicated dairy farmers on the national stage with the Legendairy Farmer Round clash between Adelaide and Collingwood. He reckons it’s a great opportunity to raise awareness for the industry and recognise the strong ties between footy and farming.

“Footy gets the crowd, so it’s one way to get a good connection,” he said.

“They used to say that everyone had a cousin in the country, but a lot of people in the city are probably further away from farming than they used to be and perhaps don’t realise just how technical dairy farming now is.”

In fact, modern dairy farmers need over 170 professional skills just to get the job done. Chris started working on honing those skills from an early age.

“I always had an interest in farming; I can remember in primary school there’d be times I’d get up before dad to get the milking started. I always had an interest in the cows and I just like dairy farming – it always appealed to me.”

He never considered anything else.

“I left school at 15 to start on the family farm, which was around 100 hectares at that point. I was working with my brother at the time and about seven years later we bought out our parents and added a few more blocks of land,” he said.

Chris and his wife Bev married in 1990, and about six years later they took over the entire farm when Chris’s brother left the industry.

Growing up, footy came with the dairy territory – or vice-versa.

“My family wasn’t from a football background. My brother and I played because friends played,” Chris said.
The early start in footy also paid dividends. Three times he earned the Great Southern Football League’s highest individual honour, the Mail Medal, as well as five club Best and Fairest crowns. Throw in back-to-back premierships in 1983 and 1984, and it’s fair to say he’s a bit of a local legend.

Those premierships came alongside a host of other dairy farmers who were also footy royalty, including Barry Clarke (550 A-grade games), brothers Geoff (330) and David Hutchinson (328), and Peter Raper (228) – all still dairy farming – among many others.

“Back when we started in Colts, I’d guess 60 to 70 per cent of the kids would have been off the farm. When we won the two premierships, 13 of the 20 were involved in dairying.

“Those that weren’t off the farm were often involved in the local milk factory, which was probably the largest employer at the time.”

Chris has seen some change since then, both at the club and in the farming community.

“A lot of us are still involved in the club on an admin side, but there haven’t been so many young dairy people playing because there haven’t been as many on the farms,” he said.

“Dairying has thinned out in our area, which has been a bit disappointing. But there are quite a few young farmers around now who are looking to take on their parents’ dairies and there are some good managers going around too.”

Chris is vice-president of the local community centre, which runs the local sports grounds and is a hub of social gatherings for the community. He’s also an assistant coach for the Mudlarks and has been on the footy club committee for over 30 years.

“My parents always said ‘when you’re finished you need to put back in what you got out of it’, because someone’s got to keep it going. I got a lot out of sport in our local area. Part of it’s certainly social but part of it’s also trying to put back.”

Many of his dairy farming teammates have joined him in coaching and committee roles, and the club continues to be a regular meeting spot to share ideas with mates in the dairy game.

“We talk fairly actively about farming. If you don’t have a social outlet you can probably sit on your own problems a fair bit. But when you’re having a tough time, it’s always good to talk it out,” he said.

“We’re not trying to outdo each other. If someone has an idea or even had a failure, they’re quite happy to open up and discuss it. People have different ways of getting through it and we can talk about how we best manage our conditions. It’s pretty good sharing that way.”

And manage they have. Chris and Bev’s business has adapted to the operating environment.

“I’ve certainly seen a lot of change in our understanding of dairy farming, from where we came from in the 1970s to now, not just in innovation and new technology, but to managing and growing pastures,” he said.

“We’re trying to produce milk at a lower cost. A few years back we were milking 500 cows and buying in a lot of feed.

We realised our stocking rate was too high for what we were growing, so we pulled that right back to about 300, increased our homegrown feed and have a figure in mind for where we want to be.

“On the old system we just said ‘we have to milk more cows.’ But as soon as the margins squeezed together, there was nowhere to move. We’re more highly adaptable to the variation than before and can adjust depending on what the season and price does.”

And, thanks to the strength of his local community connections, Chris can always count on a chat at the footy club with his fellow footballing farmers if he wants a second opinion.

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