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Keeping on the straight and narrow

Plowing may have seen its day for commercial farming, but interest in the age-old skill lives on

Junior sulky winner Justin McKee with Art Gibson on his specially built cart for teaching how to plow safely.

The 2018 Manitoba Plowing Championships were held the last weekend in September on the Tom and Jean Ryall farm west of Rivers, with sunny skies greeting participants and onlookers.

After been disbanded in the early 1960s the Manitoba Plowing Society was revived by a group of enthusiasts in 2006, and interest has increased since.

In the horse-drawn division, junior sulky winner was Justin McKee of Minnedosa, novice winner was Dan Fontaine of La Broquerie and senior winner was Johan Hildebrand of Steinbach.

There were three tractor division winners: senior by Tom Ryall, hydraulic by John Bielby of Carroll and vintage by Bob Martens of Rivers. The first- and second-place participants in the senior tractor class qualify to represent Manitoba at the Canadian championships which will be held in Durham, Ontario in 2019. The winner will represent Canada at the World Plowing match in Russia in 2020.

Only tractor plowmen go on to the Canadian championships but there was one exception when the match was held in Manitoba in 2012.

Tom Ryall of Rivers fine tunes the settings on his plow before his turn to compete in the Manitoba Plowing Championships. photo: Joan Airey

In the plowing competition points are awarded for straightness and neatness of resulting furrows. Judging for general appearance cannot take place until the plot is completed. The judges look for good, clearly defined, uniform and level furrows with all grass well buried to leave soil available for a good seedbed. The workmanship and skill of the plowman on all aspects of the plot is taken into consideration when awarding the points for general appearance.

“The first thing a judge looks for is straightness which is very obvious to any spectator and straightness is judged four times through the plot,” said Ryall, a plowing enthusiast who also has competed and judged in numerous countries.

“The next thing is all the furrows must be evenly matched… all the trash, grass straw etc. must be buried, the work must be firm to walk on with no holes or high spots. A judge once told me a mouse should not be able to hide in a well-plowed plot.”

No rust allowed

“Getting your plow ready for a match really begins when you finish the previous match as the plow has to be greased and oiled to prevent any rust forming,” Ryall said. “Some soils are very sticky and if the plow is rusty it will not do a good job.”

Measuring is also important as a plow can plow different widths in different soil types.

“Even a quarter-inch wider or narrower over 13 or 14 rounds will mean you will have problems making a good finish,” Ryall said.

He and his wife attended the World Plowing Championships in Germany this September. Twenty-eight countries competed in two classes — conventional and reversible. Each country is allowed one competitor in each class. Twenty-five Canadians attended the world match in Germany plus two competitors, a coach/judge and world representative.

The World Conventional class was won by Eamonn Treacy from the Republic of Ireland and the reversible by Thomas Cochrane from Northern Ireland.

“Women are welcome to compete and on two occasions the championships were won by women from Austria. This year two women competed — one from Sweden, and a girl from the U.S. came in sixth in the conventional plowing,” Ryall said.

Young enthusiast

Junior sulky winner Justin McKee competed in his first provincial match at age 10 in 2015.

“My sisters started showing Clydesdales at the Threshermen’s Reunion when I was seven but I was more interested in the workhorses. I started hanging out in the workhorse barn and as I got to know some of the guys and their horses when I was nine they started letting me help.”

McKee’s enthusiasm started when he helped Art Gibson of Neepawa with his horses.

“He saw my enthusiasm for it and decided that he would pass his knowledge of plowing down to me. Art had built a cart to pull behind the plow so people could ride along and see how the plow works. He uses this cart to teach me how to plow, as he can ride behind and give me help and instructions on what to do. I drive the horses but for safety the lines pass by me so Art can hold them too.”

“At Austin I had many requests to ride with me on the plow but that would affect the way the plow worked,” Gibson said. “I built the wagon to trail behind so people could see how plowing worked, smell the fresh moist soil with no effect on the plow. I wanted to pass the art of plowing on to Justin safely so I hooked the wagon behind the plow for me to ride on.”

Gibson said the number of teams competing has grown each year. “A gentleman from North Dakota has been up to watch the event the last two years and plans to participate next year with his team and plow.”

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