Editorial: An enjoyable glimpse at a dying art — in North America

The recently held World Ploughing Match in Olds perhaps highlighted the growing gap in world agricultural production. That gap is starkly evident in western North America where king-size, commercial agriculture continues to expand.

At the Olds College event, competitors from over 50 countries were using modest, mid-size tractors pulling two- or three-bottom plows. That size may well have been within the technical requirements of the competition, but they looked rather quaint compared to the giant equipment on display at the event trade show.

Also, this observer could not find a single plow of any size on display at the machinery show. That may have been an oversight, but I expect there is a message there. Plowing has become something of a lost art on the large, commercial crop operations that now dominate midwestern North America. But that’s not the case in many other parts of the world.

Although it’s changing in some parts, much of European agriculture is still quite modest in scope and size with a sizable workforce compared to North America. This has much to do with geography, culture and of course politics. The infamous EU Common Agriculture Policy was designed more to maintain the status quo in agriculture and food production and to keep people on the land, and quiet. Hence, there is little incentive for farmers to expand in order to survive by means of economies of scale.

This means that in most EU countries that compete in the plowing matches they have plenty of competitors, since their farmer populations are much larger. Such farm economics also see many small farms which use much smaller equipment like three-bottom mouldboard plows. The size of North American farm machinery must astound these folks.

However, it’s not all small-time over there. Entrepreneurial Danish and Dutch operators have carved out mega-size grain farms from former communist collective farms in eastern Germany and Ukraine. That sees the use of North American-scale production equipment on those massive operations. It vastly increased efficiencies and yields, but it displaced thousands of collective farm residents and workers when the state sold the properties to those well-financed operators. But that’s another story.

From comments by foreign visitors, it would seem that in some countries these plowing competitions attract many thousands of spectators and include substantial ag industry participation. Some of the Olds competition foreign participants were sponsored by their governments and resident ag industries. That saw their specialized competition equipment sent over earlier in containers. Other less-financed participants had to scrounge around locally for their competition equipment.

Watching the event would also seem to be an acquired interest, as there is not a lot of excitement in watching a furrow turn over. It’s not exactly a race either, as the event unfolds at a leisurely pace. The participants are already national champions so not a lot of mistakes were made to add colour and emotion to the event.

Surprisingly some competitors used plastic mouldboards in their plows, and somewhat baffling was the presence of placard-waving fans of some competitors.

The presence of female plowpersons as competitors is a welcome change from past events. Watching the event progress one can’t help but ponder the ancient historic connection that plowing has to human development. The concept of plowing land in an organized manner was the basis to the beginnings of human civilization and agricultural progress about 10,000 years ago. But I digress.

The event this year was masterfully managed by Olds College, for them it was the second time around, having hosted a previous world plowing competition 27 years ago. This year’s event cost around $1 million to organize. College sources indicated that all expenses were covered by sponsors.

It’s hard to determine from the crowd size in attendance whether this event was a success or not. Plowing competitions are not that well known as a spectator sport in this area. I should mention that there is an Alberta provincial plowing competition held every year at Wanham in the Peace River district. It’s been located there since 1971 and is a well-rounded family event with many related activities.

One can’t help but be impressed with the highly precise nature of championship plowing as contestants lay down sharp-concise furrows in arrow-straight rows without the use of computerized depth sensors or GPS-guided tractors. Good plowing is a combination of skill and art, which is perhaps even more displayed at the old-time horse-plowing demonstrations that were held nearby. Horse plowing also involves a certain physical challenge along with keen horse sense, all of which I expect made the arrival of tractor plowing most welcome to farmers of an earlier age. In a curious evolution one could see that even tractor plowing may become a quaint demonstration event to large-scale commercial farmers in this part of the world. Agriculture has indeed come a very, very long way.

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