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Football and farming a way of life for Ken McSween

Ken McSween grew up on a family farm but admits that as a young lad he had no ambitions of becoming a dairy farmer and epilepsy kept him off the football field.

But things sure did change for the dairy farmer from Glenormiston, Victoria.

He eventually came to love dairying and forged a long and successful football career. Today he’s giving back to both the industry and the sport he loves as president of the Terang-Mortlake branch of the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV) and as president of the Warrnambool District Football Netball League (WDFNL).

For nearly 20 years, Ken and his wife Cindy ran a music and video store in nearby Terang but then took over 94 hectares of surplus land from his brother, Peter.

“Peter didn’t need it so we thought we’d try it,” Ken said. “We found there was more money milking cows at the time than being in retail so we got out of the shop.”

Getting back into dairy was a revelation.

“The cows were all mine,” Ken said. “That was the difference. If I was milking someone else’s cows I never really got interested in it. When they’re mine you really look at them and they’re all different with their own personalities.

“It’s my livelihood. I now find milking cows very therapeutic. I do a lot of my best thinking while I’m milking.”

The flexibility of a farm lifestyle is also a boon for Ken, allowing him the time to give something back to both his loves – the dairy industry and football.

“I milk morning and night and there’s always something to do on a farm, but one of the best things is that you’re your own boss and you can be flexible. If it wasn’t for the farming I wouldn’t be able to do half the stuff I do with the WDFNL.”

As a child with epilepsy, Ken’s football opportunities were limited, so he became involved with the Glenormiston juniors as a boundary umpire. However, the urge to play was strong and he decided to give it a go anyway.

Ken played until he was 45 and returned for two games with local team Kolora-Noorat at age 50, after winning a battle against bowel cancer.

“I made a promise to myself that when I felt better I’d go and play a game of footy. It was more of a psychological thing. If I could play a game of footy, I realised I was right again,” he said.

The two-game comeback went better than expected.

“I had a ball. I just went into the middle of the pack like I always did. I kicked more goals (four) in that first game than I’d ever kicked.”

Turning 57 in March, Ken hasn’t ruled out another one-off comeback later this year.

His long playing career started at Glenormiston, to Terang in the Hampden league before returning to Noorat. He also had coaching stints at Glenormiston College, Mortlake reserves and Derrinallum, where he also played a season on the 1996 premiership team.

Of his eight premierships, that remains his favourite.

His most notorious game was for Noorat in an infamous 1987 grand final against the Purnim Bears in the Heytesbury Mount Noorat League.

The Bears won but were later banned from the competition after six players were reported on 18 different striking charges, some of which led to suspensions of more than two years. Ken admits he’s a bit tired of the infamy that has grown around that game.

“That’s the one I want to forget about but it’s the game everyone keeps reminding me about.”

After the premiership at Derrinallum, the father of four returned to Noorat to finish his playing career and help the juniors, joining the club committee and starting his involvement at an administrative level.

He was elected to the Heytesbury Mount Noorat League executive during its final years before merging into the Warrnambool League. After a few years, he became an executive member of WDFNL and president at the end of the 2013 season – a role he’s obviously well suited to, given that he’s also been president of the Terang-Mortlake branch of the UDV for the past two years.

“To me, the UDV is a chance to try to make every farmer’s life a lot better,” Ken explained.

And, to that end, he’s worked hard to introduce a number of forums to get more farmers involved.

Ken sees similarities in the challenges facing the dairy industry and football when it comes to attracting the participation of young people, and he’s focused on recruiting younger farmers into supporting roles, while encouraging an executive approach to dealing with issues.

“Participation is far more important than attendance. I’ve always had the belief that people won’t turn up unless they get something out of a meeting,” he said.

“The biggest drawback to getting young people into the dairy industry is the cost. We don’t want the price of land to drop but there are some models being put into place to help young people transition into farms.”

Ken also supports stronger links between dairying and the broader community and believes the industry’s Legendairy communications initiative to raise the profile and reputation of Australian dairy is bringing the farmer a lot closer to the ‘regular person in the street’.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what farmers do. To be a dairy farmer there are loads of different skills you need.”

With his footy hat on, Ken is equally committed to boosting the next generation. He’s overseen the establishment of a junior academy and an innovative substitute rule where junior players are chosen as subs for senior games, doubling the number of kids able to play senior footy.

“In footy we’re being threatened by other codes so we’re working hard to get the kids as early as possible though Auskick.

“Junior development is my mantra.”

And it’s also a goal he plans to keep on kicking – on the farm and at the footy ground.