PLOUGHING was invented thousands of years ago by some enterprising farmer.
That person’s thought process probably went along the lines of: “The bloke in the next field swears by planting his crops randomly, but I reckon I could fit more in my field by digging it over with a big blade thing.
“And besides, a big blade thing will turn the soil over far more easily than a shovel.”
A while later, he and his loved ones having tired of hauling the big blade thing up and down the field before every planting season, that pioneering farmer looked at his ox and a lightbulb was switched on over his head – or rather, whatever there was in the days before lightbulbs were switched on over his head.
The ox probably gave a farmer a look that said “You want me to do what?”, before settling resignedly to its task and longing for the domestication of the horse.
Ploughing was so successful that it caught on worldwide and is still with us today. Technology has advanced so much that in some of the newer equipment the operator can all but sit back in the cab while an array of sensors and automatic devices do things which used to take years of practice.
So why is it that men and women up and down the land gather at country shows to pit their ploughing skills against one another? Why is it that thousands of other people turn out to watch? Why is it that there is a Society of Ploughmen whose website lists dozens of competitions?
“It’s the feeling of a job done well,” said competition ploughman Malcolm Hinton, whose family has farmed near Wanborough since about 1900.
“You like to do it so that nobody can criticise it. You have to plough a straight furrow, a uniform furrow. It has to be all level. You have to judge the quality of the soil and the conditions. Each field is different so the plough has to be set for those conditions.”
The skills used in competition are the ones which can still make the difference between a profit and a loss, and which in years gone by might have made the difference between a comfortable winter and starvation.
Malcolm is married to Christine and has three sons. The youngest, 20-year-old Andrew, works in demolition but is an enthusiastic competition ploughman.
Malcolm has plenty of trophies and rosettes while Andrew is a novice with just two matches under his belt so far. They were due to take part in a competition at Lambourn last Saturday, but it was rained off. Now they’re looking forward to the 2013 season.
Andrew said: “I’ve always had an interest in tractors and agriculture, and I took that interest and put it into competition.”
Malcolm added: “I don’t go out to win – I just go for the enjoyment. There are competitors and judges from all over the country. There are judges who do nothing but judge.”
Both men say their love of ploughing comes from working together on the farm, which is still run by Malcolm’s 88-year-old father, Bob. Bob himself is a fearsomely skilled ploughman who was ploughing until as recently as last year.
During matches, competitors are divided into categories according to everything from age and experience to the number of cutting edges they are pulling. Each competitor is assigned a section of ground and has their work assessed according to complex rules. Good form means not just evenness and straightness but also consistent depth, parallel furrows and parellel ‘ins and outs’ – the start and end of each furrow.
There is something hypnotic about watching a match, as thousands of YouTube videos prove.
Most competitors are from a farming background or at least from a farming family, but it’s possible for a person with no such pedigree to become involved.
“There’s scope,” said Malcolm, “but you’d have to get in with a friendly farmer for instruction. It would be difficult but not impossible.”
The Society of Ploughmen’s website is www.ploughmen.co.uk