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Ontario Plowman's Association president Ray Dedman.
Ontario Plowman's Association president Ray Dedman.

Ontario plowing contests celebrate farm skills

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Plowing contests have been a popular feature of agricultural life in Ontario for well over a century. The gatherings put key skills on display, with different classes, based on age or equipment used. Horses, tractors and techniques are part of the show too, for the pleasure of interested crowds.

Retired dairy farmer Ray Dedman is this year's president of the Ontario Plowman's Association, which hosts an International Plowing Contest and Rural Expo this September, near Waterloo. Ontario's 44 regional plowing associations typically hold smaller contests in August as well.

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Ray Dedman is grounded in farm skills. The retired dairyman recounts that his grandfather and father both partook in plowing matches, using horses. He's more comfortable with tractors, though he can muddle by behind a team.

A popular feature of most contests is watching local politicians try their hand at making a straight furrow. Mercifully, they only have to plow. Someone else reins the horse. But Dedman offered this tip: “If you're gonna do that competition, you want to start early. Because it gets pretty crooked, by the end, for the last politician.” Dedman says politicians at the international plowing contest get to use tractors.

A urbanite may have trouble appreciating the importance of good plowing – it all just looks like churned up dirt. Dedman says it is an art, “and it's judged on the straightness of furrow, the coverage of the grass, or any soil.” Some techniques have changed, mostly to further soil conservation.

And what about modern, expensive tractors that almost seem to drive themselves?

Horse or machine, Dedman says skill is still a factor. Especially when competing at top levels. “It's like figure skating. The judges, they look for certain things: straightness of furrow, how neat you are at the end, nice and very eye-appealing.”

He allows that watching a plowing contest can be pretty slow. It might take a few hours to finish a display lot. So there's also an array of other events, displays and activities. The smorgasbord attracts active farmers and those with farm roots. In the case of this year's International contest, the 800-acre site has 1,800 RV sites. Dedman says many stay for the whole week: “It's just like going to a bluegrass festival.”

Plowing is a constant factor in farming, but do plowing practices remain constant?

Dedman says soil type is the main determining factor of what a farmer does to prepare the soil. According to Dedman, plowed soil needs some basics no matter what: “Making sure there's ridges so that the water, it'll go down each ridge, rather than make one big stream and take, you know, take all your soil with it.” It's important to avoid what are called “dead furrows” where water pools. And a good farmer can never ignore techniques to conserve soil: “Because it's only made once, and we've got to keep it!”

Dedman expects this year's international contest and rural expo near Waterloo (Sept. 18-22) will draw some 130,000 people. All are welcome.



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