Field of dreams: heartbreak and heroics at the World Ploughing Championships

On 31 August, the night before the first day of the World Ploughing Championship, the bar of the Hotel Fortuna in the small German town of Reutlingen was crammed with the global ploughing elite. The scene resembled a low-key United Nations afterparty – Swiss, Kenyans, Australians, Latvians, Canadians and French, all slugging back long glasses of German beer.

The top flight of international ploughing is a limited pool, the same faces recurring every year, and so the atmosphere was jovial, like a school reunion, 50-odd ploughmen and two ploughwomen (the sport has historically been dominated by men) hailing each other affectionately across the room. Much of the talk concerned the wild boar who had apparently dug up the field where the following day’s competition would take place. But there was something else in the air too, a bonhomie edged with rivalry. They were here to win.

The two English competitors, Mick Chappell and Ashley Boyles, stood to one side with their families. Chappell is 57, Boyles 35, but it was the younger man who bid everyone goodnight and went up to bed early. Boyles takes his ploughing very seriously. Chappell, a man more inclined to Freddie Flintoff-style bouts of prolonged revelry, leaned against a wall, finished a pint and readily accepted the offer of another. Earlier in the summer, he had told me he would prepare for the world championship by drinking five pints the night before. When asked if any other international athlete adopted a similar strategy ahead of a major competition, he disputed the terms: “I wouldn’t say athlete.”

Competitive ploughing is unquestionably a sport, in that it’s an organised physical activity with a governing body and strict rules, but it’s fair to say that the physique of a world-class ploughman doesn’t immediately call to mind a Novak Djokovic or a Cristiano Ronaldo. Ploughing – after sufficient immersion – can quietly thrill in its display of precision and technique, but it is not a pastime that requires fitness or even a healthy BMI. One recent winner of the annual British Ploughing Championship was 82 years old. Boyles has the build of a retired scrum-half; Chappell wears glasses and has a heavy limp – he lost his left leg to a sugar-beet harvester at the age of 17. (In what has become Chappell family lore, he hopped back to his tractor and drove to the farm for help, blood seeping from his stump, his severed leg still in the harvester.)

The following day, Chappell and Boyles would mount their tractors, ploughs rigged to the back, and spend four hours inverting the soil on a plot of land to create a sequence of furrows, burying the old crop and making a seed bed for the new. Nothing would happen very quickly, the event closer to test cricket than a sprint. But, if ploughing somehow lacks as a sport in terms of speed or jeopardy, it also exceeds other sports’ parameters. Like archery, say, it’s an ancient skill, but where archery has lapsed into hobby, ploughing remains a real-life job, one that has been performed for millennia. It’s the oldest profession in the world – second oldest, ploughmen like to say, if you count prostitution.

The plough often features in exhibitions and radio shows (The History of the World in 100 Objects; 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy) as a handy plot point in the history of human development. But, as objects go, it was genuinely transformative: we were hunter-gatherers until we learned to drag a stick through the earth, plant seeds and grow stuff. The plough turned us into farmers; it made us civilised. And, like many things we have unquestioningly done to the earth for a long time, ploughing has also made us complicit in our own destruction. The heavy modern plough, churning ever deeper into the earth, may be ruining our soil.

Back in the Fortuna bar, Chappell finished his pint and surveyed the competition. “Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he said, in his curt Yorkshire accent. The Irish always seem to win. “And the Swiss.” He nodded at a young man with vibrantly rosy cheeks sitting on a bar stool surrounded by his countrymen. “That one.” Chappell felt he was in with a good chance, though, the way a sportsman does before a competition actually begins. This was his moment.

The Irish are so good at ploughing, one grudging ploughman told me, because they don’t have anything better to do at the weekend. A more plausible explanation is that, unlike in most countries, ploughing retains a certain status in Ireland. The national championship – known simply as the Ploughing – is a major annual event, presided over by 84-year-old Anna May McHugh, Queen of the Ploughing (the title of her memoir, published last year). The queen’s daughter, Anna Marie, is now the general secretary of the World Ploughing Organisation, and in the ploughing world there is a general sense of the Irish being in charge, of Ireland being the sport’s natural home. The Ploughingisn’t a novelty activity, but one of the largest outdoor events in Europe, attended by almost 300,000 people over three days. Politicians turn up, knowing it’s a helpful place to be seen. Dubliners come for a day out. There is sponsorship from major brands such as Aldi and Coca-Cola. Unlike in the British nationals, which are sponsored by a tyre company, the competitors win prize money and financial support to compete internationally.

In Britain, as with any other untelevised niche sport with an extremely limited fanbase, there is precious little money in ploughing. Bar a little help from the Society of Ploughmen, the competitors pay their own expenses (about £3,000 to go to Germany: transporting the tractor and plough on a lorry, paying for the hotel, food, beer). In the 1800s, when neighbouring squires pitted their best ploughmen against each other in local matches, the winners would have been heroes, won a year’s wages from their boss and would be traded between farms like Premier League footballers. Today, ploughmen arrange charity matches for each other to cover their costs. The crowds, when they come, tend to gravitate towards the vintage ploughing, charmed by horses and steam, rather than watching men on tractors drive slowly up and down a field.

 Vintage ploughing at the 68th British National Ploughing Championships in Warwickshire in October. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
For most people, the reality of ploughing is remote. Farming is no longer a dominant profession in the UK: around 1.5% of British workers are now employed in agriculture, a drop from 22% in 1841. A third of British children aren’t sure where milk comes from, so it seems unlikely they would be familiar with the curve of a furrow. But leave a city and farmers still plough, year after year. The land hasn’t shrunk: almost three quarters of British ground (around 17.5m hectares, or 43m acres) is used in agriculture and of this, a third is for arable farming, or crops. Much of that portion will be regularly ploughed.

Two months before the world championships, I had watched Chappell and Boyles practise their ploughing on fields 40 miles apart – Chappell in Yorkshire, Boyles in Lincolnshire. Chappell was ploughing on the 800-hectare farm where he works as a contractor, Boyles in a neighbour’s field opposite his house. Both men grew up on farms, driving tractors from the age of six, but Boyles’s family eventually gave up farming and set up in haulage – better money, easier life. Boyles retained a love of tractors and the kind of life-devouring devotion to ploughing that, as with much sport done at the highest level for no money and no audience, seems both absurd and wonderful to anyone not touched by the obsession.

a reversible and Boyles with a conventional. (The reversible plough, manipulated by a set of hydraulic levers, can flip over at the end of each furrow, allowing the ploughman to plough up and down his plot of land. The more old-fashioned conventional plough can’t flip, but stays in the same position, requiring the ploughman to plough around his plot instead.) The following day, they would return to plough on grassland – a less forgiving surface, where every wonky furrow is obvious to the spectator. The scores from the two days would then be amalgamated, and the winner in each class crowned world champion at the gala dinner in the evening.

Chappell and Boyles’s plots, each marked by a St George’s cross flapping in the wind, were on opposite sides of a wide path running down the middle of the field separating the 26 plots of conventional from 28 plots of reversible. At one end of Chappell’s plot, his parents, Ken and Anne, and his sister, Sue, were already stationed on green folding chairs. The Chappells are like the Redknapps or the Nevilles of ploughing, a dominant family in the sport. The surname reverberates: sometimes a gift, sometimes a weight. Sue is the Society of Ploughmen’s secretary, Uncle David also competes, and Ken is the sport’s retired emperor. In his time, Ken was a champion ploughman, served on the World Ploughing Board, wrote the judges’ ploughing manual and generally shaped competitive ploughing as it is known today. When Mick won the British National Ploughing Championship last year, and secured his place at the world championship, Ken watched, beaming, as his son finished off an exemplary plot. “He were happier than I was,” said Mick, who more naturally takes an Eeyore-ish pleasure in mild misfortune.

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