Up until my mid-20s, I always thought ploughing was something a farmer did when he wanted to plant a new crop in his field.
Little did I know that ploughing could also be a competitive sport. I remember thinking, “What? People do that for pleasure?” How far I’ve come: Nowadays I frequently attend ploughing matches and have even competed in one myself.
What to expect at a U.K. ploughing match
I expect ploughing competitions in the U.S. are quite different events to what they are over here in the U.K. For a start, I don’t expect you have quite the same amount of mud we do. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I always imagine dust is more of an issue for you chaps than mud is.
Because the matches here are held during autumn and early spring, they usually fall on the wettest, windiest and most godforsaken days you can imagine. I’ve been to matches where all of the vehicles have to be towed on and off the fields with the help of large tractors, the rain is falling sideways, the end of each ploughing plot disappears off into an atmospheric mist and the ploughmen are unrecognizable under their vast oilskins.
There might be a van selling tea and bacon butties (otherwise known as bacon sandwiches) but that’s about it, because ploughing matches over here aren’t like shows: They are pretty hardcore, and there isn’t generally a great deal laid on to amuse the casual spectator. You might have to be pretty bonkers to enter, and you probably have to be even more bonkers to spend a whole day in the rain watching it happen.
Ploughing match competitors
But don’t get me wrong, that is exactly what I like about ploughing matches – the quirkiness of the event itself, and the dedication of the characters who compete in such events. These things make matches great places to indulge in a bit of people-watching. Personally I think it’s brilliant that for no real reward (at least no real financial reward), people from all across the country go to great lengths to bring their tractors to a muddy field, just to plough.
Often these people have restored their own tractors, spending long evenings after work in the shed, elbow-deep in oil, overcoming some problem or other, just to come out on a cold wet day to play, ahem sorry, to plough. I’m not criticizing: I’m celebrating the fact that people are this dedicated. What a dull world it would be if we all had the same hobbies, and if earning wads of cash was our only goal in life. But at least admit that it is all a little bit eccentric (in the best possible way of course), and accept that, to the outsider, it must all seem rather peculiar, just as it did to me in the beginning.
Since those early days when I didn’t know the difference between a mounted plough and a trailer plough (shame on me), I’ve come along in leaps and bounds. I now understand that ploughing well requires a great deal of skill. It is an art in itself, and at the end of a day’s work the plough-person has created something he or she can look at and be proud of, whereas there are some jobs where you can work all day and still have very little to show for it come five o’clock. What’s more, ploughing can be deeply therapeutic in that it’s one of those pastimes where the hours just fly by, and your mind has unwound with the passing of each furrow. As my brother Pete puts it, “It’s impossible to be in a bad mood when you are ploughing.” Though I’m sure after a few hundred acres it can all get a bit repetitive.
It has to be said, though, that ploughing matches are definitely a “bloke thing,” in that you rarely see women competing. When I do see a female competitor my heart is always filled with hope – because it means that, thank heavens, there are other women out there who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. People, myself included, are fascinated by the lone plough-woman in the ploughing match. “However did she get started with ploughing?” “What sort of a person is she?” It seems curious, yet deep down we know that of course women can plough, if they have arms and legs and a brain: it’s just that they don’t often want to.
Having a go on a 1942 John Deere AO
So yes, I actually competed in a ploughing match just over a year ago. I was extremely nervous, and it made me realize that the reason I don’t compete regularly in such events is not because I don’t like driving a tractor, it’s simply that I don’t like being “on show.” Furthermore, I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. As soon as I’m being watched, especially watched by “experts,” I start to make a pig’s ear of things. For instance, I can reverse a trailer quite adequately. Until, that is, one of my brothers is watching, and then for some reason it all starts to go bottoms up.
All the same, I agreed to take part in this match because it was for charity, the organizer asked me if I would take part and to have refused would have seemed churlish. This match was made more demanding by the facts that not only had I never ploughed before, I had also never driven the tractor in question. And it was no ordinary tractor: It was a 1942 2-cylinder John Deere AO with a hand clutch, in other words, a Popping Johnny.
The brave chap who owned the tractor lives just over a mile from the match, so I drove the AO there, which, in theory, gave me a bit of time to get used to the vehicle. In reality it probably only served to get my adrenaline going, because despite traveling extremely slowly (for 10 minutes I curb-crawled along behind an elderly gentleman out walking his dog – “What a peculiar stalker,” he must have thought), the trailer plough’s steel wheels were making a worryingly loud racket on the road, and I was in mortal fear that the plough would drop to the ground at any moment and destroy itself noisily on the tarmac.
For a U.K. match, this was quite an unusual tractor. It attracted a lot of attention at the match, attention I could well have done without – for I was not, how do you put it, very well prepared. My brother had tried to show me, by drawing a diagram on the back of an old envelope, how you “do an opening,” and in the end I started nodding as though I understood, just because I wanted him to stop confusing me.
So, it was the opening that I dreaded the most. After that, I thought, I might actually start enjoying it. And enjoy it I did, despite the fact it came as a bit of a shock just how much adjusting one has to do to the plough. I had thought that once the dreaded opening was over I could simply stick the plough in the ground and sail away, but instead an army of “ploughing guardian angels” descended on me and bombarded me with often conflicting advice about the adjustments of my plough. As soon as I followed one piece of advice and lengthened my top link, another person would come along and tell me to shorten it.
I’d heard of “housemaid’s knee” and “tennis elbow.” That day I discovered a new ailment, namely “ploughman’s neck,” caused by spending the day with your head bent around the wrong way whilst sitting in a stiff breeze. I have to say that I enjoyed the ploughing match most of all once it was over and I was able to look back on it with amusement. I do feel proud of the fact that at least I had a go at it and managed to complete my plot. It also made me understand that there’s a lot more to this ploughing malarkey than meets the eye. When I next try ploughing, I would rather it was with my user-friendly little MF 35, and in the corner of some quiet little field, far, far from the maddening crowd. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at