A Passion For Ploughing

Irish farmers show their tillage skills in international competition.

William Hall competes in his local County Sligo, Ireland, events to qualify for the National Ploughing Championships, where he came in fifth in his class, Image by Greg Lamp

Perfectly straight. Precise depth. Well-turned with a round back. In a nutshell, that’s how judges describe what they’re looking for from contestants at the National Ploughing Championships.

The Ploughing, as it’s known in Ireland, is held at Tullamore, about 65 miles west of Dublin. After 86 years, the event has morphed into a premier machinery and livestock exhibition where equipment manufacturers, food companies and a host of other industries display their goods. Rain or shine, some 100,000 people come every day during the three-day event to not only watch 350 competitors plough but also to attend one of the biggest farm shows in Western Europe.

“I thought the whole idea of a plowing event was intriguing,” says Andrew Swenson, sales manager at Midwest Machinery, St. Cloud, Minnesota. “Before I came here, I thought it was going to be all about speed. Was I wrong.”

Swenson was one of several equipment dealers hosted by Enterprise Ireland to experience the world-class expo and given the opportunity to network with representatives from more than 1,700 stands (booths) over the 800-acre exhibit field about Irish innovation and technology. Enterprise Ireland is a government group charged with helping develop exports for Irish industries.

BORN TO PLOUGH. Sean Monaghan, 27, from County Longford, has been attending the Ploughing since he was 16 years old and now competes. “I got interested in it from my father who has been competing for more than 30 years,” says Monaghan, who is registered in the under-28 class.

“I like the competition and look at it like a sport, and even hang out with fellow ploughmen. I often meet up with many of the same lads at local events,” he says. “We could end up with 10 to 15 competitions a year before we make it to the national championships.” Competitors have to compete in their respective counties to qualify for the nationals.

You don’t see big, fancy tractors at the Ploughing. In fact, most are under 100 hp, Monaghan explains. Plows are standard two and three furrows (bottoms), and some are reversible. Utility-sized tractors allow drivers to stay closer to their ploughs, and high horsepower isn’t needed to pull the smaller ploughs. The goal is to make the furrows nearly perfect, and that’s easier to accomplish with smaller ploughs. Smaller equipment also doesn’t require as much farm ground for the competition.

The Ploughing rules and regulations are elaborate, taking up 19 pages in the official catalog. “Judges mostly look for straightness, neatness and appearance,” Monaghan says. “No two ploughing plots are ever the same because there are different soils in every competition.”

Monaghan runs a Kverneland two-furrow plough with a Case IH 895 80-hp tractor. He farms full-time and has 100 sheep, 60 suckler cows plus hay and grassland.

There are 200 total points per event, and often, contestants place within a point or two from the winners, who walk away with a cash award and a trophy. Two overall champions--one conventional and one reversible--are eligible to attend the World Ploughing Championships (held in Kenya in 2017) with expenses for shipping equipment and travel costs paid by the National Ploughing Association (NPA). Some poorer countries that can’t afford the costs often get a loan from the host country.

Tom Duffy, from North Tipperary, is one of many judges and also a competitor. It’s not uncommon for longtimers to volunteer their time to help judge and bring along the next generation. As Duffy puts it: “You have to love it. It’s our hobby.”

History of Ploughing:

The first ploughing competition was held in 1931 on a 26-acre field in Ireland with nine counties represented. From that, the National Ploughing Association (NPA) was born with a simple mission: to bring the message of good ploughing to all parts of the country and to provide a pleasant and friendly place to meet and do business.

Back then, ploughing was done by horses. In fact, in 1944, as many as 90 teams were used in the competition. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, horses were largely phased out, and tractors took over. However, today, there’s still an official horse division in the competition.

By 1953, the NPA became more formalized, and the first world contest was held by Canada, with 10 countries competing. In 1954, it was held in Ireland.

Also that year, the first ploughing competition for women was introduced and called the “farmerette” class, which was open to girls and single, married or widowed women without reference to age. The winner was known as “Queen of the Plough.”

The real queen title now goes to Anna May McHugh, who was the NPA’s long-serving secretary since 1954 until she became managing director in 1973 and, today, still heads up the association. She’s served the organization for 63 years and is the Irish board member to the board of the World Ploughing Organization (WPO), where her daughter Anna Marie McHugh is now general secretary.

WPO has 31 country members, including the U.S., where the 2019 World Championships are scheduled to be held, likely in Minnesota. Typically, 60 or more ploughers compete at the world level.

“Over the years, it’s gradually turned to more city versus rural attendees, so it’s also moved to more crafts, entertainment and food halls,” says Anna Marie, who manages the world event. She grew up on an Irish farm, is married to an Irish farmer and is even a ploughing competitor who has qualified for the nationals.

“I like the camaraderie and being part of a big ploughing family,” she says. “I can’t give it up. It’s a fever, almost addictive. Lots of young people plough now, too, and we run classes to help educate them and promote the competition.”


Past Issues