Ruth McDowall

The straight and narrow

Ploughing—the epitome of the colonial ‘civilising’ of land—is as fundamental to this country’s history as war and rugby. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we make a sport out of it.

Written by       Photographed by Ruth McDowall

The ploughing championships are held in a different rural town in New Zealand each year, but the traditional church service is always a feature.

On competition day, Timaru truck driver and 12-time national ploughing champion Bob Mehrtens wakes early. He pulls his boots on and, with dawn troubling the eastern sky, he’s out among a sleeping herd of tractors, ploughs and utes, corralled behind a line of tape.

“I like to go out there and make sure everything on the plough’s up to scratch—no flat tyres or anything silly like that,” he says. “Anything could happen overnight.”

The sun spills over the Pacific rim, illuminating the Tokomairiro Plain, a rich wedge of farmland created from a drained wetland. Gradually, the competition site comes to life, ploughers tinkering with their equipment, spectators trickling in to wander among the gleaming machinery. In the shade of a poplar stand, Clydesdales are being prepared for battle, their manes and tails plaited and festooned with ribbons and livery. They snort and stamp their feet, eager for work.

Mehrtens leans on his tractor, taking it all in. This year, the New Zealand ploughing championships are being staged at Milton, in south Otago—they’re held in a different part of the country each year—and the wily veteran knows that the key to success is reconnaissance. He’s been talking to the locals.

The country’s top ploughers regularly travel the world to compete—Bob Mehrtens’ blazer records the world championships he has attended. New Zealand has produced three world champions.

“The general consensus was that this ground doesn’t like being ploughed deep. It becomes lumpy and sticks, and doesn’t make a nice, neat job,” he reports.

Over the preceding two practice days, he’s been watching the other competitors, too. He’s figured out their weakness. “The whole lot of them were going too deep for the ground conditions,” he says. “I thought, ‘If these guys do that on the day, they’re going to pay the price.’”

There are still hours till the match begins. Nothing to do but pass time. This is Mehrtens’ least favourite part of the event. He kicks the dust and watches for rain.

[Chapter Break]

Yesterday, all the competitors gathered at Milton’s Presbyterian church for a special service. Ploughers and their spouses  showed up in their Sunday best, some wearing black-and-white blazers bearing the emblems of previous ploughing championships.

Event organiser and eight-time national champ Ian Woolley read from Psalm 65: “The river of God is full of water; You provide their grain, For so You have prepared it. You water its ridges abundantly, You settle its furrows; You make it soft with showers, You bless its growth.”

In a simple ceremony, the previous year’s winners asked Reverend Luisa Ema Fruean to rededicate their trophies for this year’s event.

The church service reminded me of the antiquity of ploughing and the central role it has played in rural communities for millennia.

“It’s just one of those things that’s very traditional,” Woolley told me afterwards over a cup of  tea. “It’s something we don’t want to lose.” Even at the world championships (at which Woolley has competed six times) a church service is always held, he said.

Today, though, the blazers and ties are back on their hangers in motel rooms. This is a day for overalls and boots, for grease and dirt. And at last, in the early afternoon, all the competitors line up for the start, in an array of small tractors harking back to an earlier era—grey Massey Fergusons, blue Fords and red International Harvesters, most without cabs.

There are five different classes of competition: conventional, vintage, contemporary, horse-drawn and reversible. A conventional plough tips the soil in one direction only, while a hydraulic reversible plough—which is what Mehrtens is pulling—allows the driver to flip the implement over at the end of a row and come straight back down the row they’ve just worked.

Soils vary greatly even within paddocks. The luck of the draw plays a huge part in the competition. Get a shingle bank or a plot full of holes and “you’re never going to do any good, no matter how hard you try,” says eight-time national champ Ian Woolley.
Thirteen-year-old Jake Watt, driving, has learned ploughing from his grandfather, former national champion John Watt (right, helped by Ray McKenzie). The expense of competitive ploughing can be prohibitive to young people, something the sport’s organisers work hard to address.

Ploughers start at the outside of the plot and work their way in. The aim is to keep the opposing furrows absolutely parallel so that, when they meet, they form one perfect furrow that zips the work together. A well-turned plot reflects the skill of the plougher—their ability to drive straight lines and maintain an even depth throughout.

Mehrtens sits at the wheel of his blue Ford, its engine idling with deadly purpose. “I don’t bugger about with old gear,” he tells me. “It doesn’t have to be new, but it’s got to be good.”

The green lights flash and they’re underway. It’s no Formula One start—the important thing here is perfection, not speed. From this moment on, Mehrtens is pure focus. Sticking to his plan, he goes shallow, dropping his steel blades to the minimum depth allowed. The ground responds, peeling like a point break, smooth, clean, neat. For the next three hours, his attention switches from the tractor wheels ahead to the plough behind. Every so often, he glances at the timer in the cab. “You’ve got to be thinking all the time,” he says. “Making sure you’re driving straight. You just get in the mode.”

Plots are drawn at random the night before the competition, and the luck of the draw plays an enormous part in a competitor’s success—get a difficult piece of ground and your chances of winning are severely hamstrung. Not that a champion ever gives up. Mehrtens once won the nationals on a plot half submerged in water. “You just have to make use of what you get,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Between the two horses and two human drivers, she says, “you’ve basically got four brains working—hopefully together, but not always.”

The trick, Mehrtens tells me, is to get your plough settings right from the very start. He keeps track of optimum settings in a notebook that lives in his tractor. “It gives you a basic starting point, and then [after that] you might have to go a little bit deeper, or a little bit shallower if it’s wet or dry, but they’re very fine adjustments.

“Anybody who goes in there like a bull at a gate and hasn’t done their homework, they’re going to go too deep or too shallow. Once you do that, you’re buggered.”

Competitors will plough a length, then leap off the tractor to grab spanners and measuring tapes,  dropping to their hands and knees to make minute adjustments and to measure the straightness and depth of their work.

The judges move through the arena like crime-scene investigators, conferring on the straightness, uniformity and cleanness of each finish. They’re looking for work that completely buries all surface vegetation and creates an even finish across the plot.

The sun moves low across the sky; the tractors creep in ever-diminishing circles. Over on the neighbouring field, the Clydesdales drag hand-guided ploughs through the heavy soil as their drivers walk behind. The horses’ flanks gleam with sweat, their bellies heaving as the plough flays the ground. The air smells of old lakebeds and ancient rain.

Woolley is busy flitting from one part of the event to another on a four-wheeler. In between talking to other organisers on the handheld radio, he takes a minute to explain what’s going on.

“From the tractor seat, you’re viewing the two furrows coming off the plough all the time,” he tells me. “And those two furrows have to be the same as all your previous furrows. They can’t be wider or higher or lower. They all have to look exactly the same. It’s like building a house. Everything has to be parallel and squared.”

What makes a good plougher? “A good thinker,” Woolley says. “You’ve got to be precise and meticulous. You’ve got to be used to getting yourself prepared and getting your machine prepared. You can’t just rock up with a rusty old plough and think you’re going to win. Your maintenance has to be dead right.”

A couple of hundred spectators mill around the edges of the plots and through the little village of makeshift stalls selling agricultural products. Competitive ploughing is hardly a scintillating sport to watch. When I awkwardly broached the subject with one of the judges at yesterday’s church service, she kindly finished my sentence for me: “It’s like watching paint dry.”

[Chapter Break]

Ploughing has been one of the cornerstones of agriculture for thousands of years. By turning over the sod, it buries plants and seeds deep enough to kill them. This creates a weed-free base upon which to establish the next crop. It also breaks up the soil, creating a soft bed in which to sow seed. Thirdly, it buries carbon-rich topsoil, enriching and aerating the deeper layers of soil, while at the same time bringing nutrients from the deeper soil to the surface.

From the moment the plough arrived in Aotearoa, in 1820, it dragged behind it a new political weight. In the scramble to claim land, carving it into neat strips was a key symbol of the colonial need to “civilise” nature.

Gaye Day plaits her Clydesdale’s tail. It’s not just about match-day aesthetics—it keeps the tail from getting tangled in the harness, a situation that could quickly turn dangerous.

But in 1879, in the run-up to the invasion of Parihaka, Te Whiti o Rongomai and his men took to ploughing land in disputed areas of Taranaki—at once a peaceful protest, and a claim of ownership. Within just a few months, 182 ploughmen had been arrested, and the act of “unlawful ploughing” was soon written into legislation, carrying a maximum two-year prison sentence.

Today, ploughing is in decline in New Zealand farming. Farmers tend to favour direct-drilling of crops, aiming for higher yields through the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Fallowing of fields—that is, giving the soils a break between crops—is rare. The ground is worked hard and constantly.

The tractors used are enormous, powered by sophisticated technology including GPS-satellite guidance—a far cry from the humble fleet assembled for the competition in Milton.

In the old days, ploughing competitors would compete with the same horses and small tractors they used at home for everyday farming; nowadays, for the most part, they’re only brought out for these special occasions.

In the rush for high production, the skill of ploughing has been diminished. “We have a new generation that sits on a tractor and presses a button,” says Malcolm Taylor, former New Zealand champion and coach of the national ploughing team. Modern ploughing with heavy equipment, he says, is all about getting the job done fast, but with little finesse. Power harrows are used to smash the sod to pieces and herbicides obliterate surviving weeds. “The tractor’s doing a lot of the job now,” says Taylor. “It’s taking the skill away from the operator, and that’s probably not a good thing in the long run.”

As Taylor explains, when organisers were setting up for this year’s national finals, a GPS-guided tractor was being used to mark out the plots. The satellites went down at a crucial moment, and the organisers had to call on local plougher Hayden Allison to drive out the lines by eye.

While judges inspect a finished plot, and John Wild adjusts the settings of his plough.

“There’s not very many people that can actually do that,” says Taylor. “We get so much into computers and electronics and GPS and all that stuff. A good ploughman can actually still match that, but they’re one in a hundred.”

There appears to be an element of rebellion in competitive ploughing. It’s a kickback against industrial farming, a return to a time when ploughers tilled the earth with care and attention to detail—because their livelihood, and that of their community, depended on it.

The plough still feeds the world, but our relationship with it is a troubled one.

[Chapter Break]

Years ago, while driving up the Waitaki Valley, I noticed a strange orange-brown haze clinging to the hills. As I got deeper into the valley it intensified—I wondered if a fire had got away further up.

At Ōmarama, the haze was so thick it obscured the hills above the town. When I emerged back onto the highway I saw where it was coming from. A recently worked paddock by the road was lifting in the nor’west wind. It had been transformed into an upward-flowing river of topsoil that surged into the sky, a dense, angry wall of dust that swallowed light. Inside the storm, tornadoes writhed, a conflagration not of fire but of earth.

A white ute circled the field—tiny against the magnitude of this force. The helpless farmers watched their most precious resource, their soil, heading for the Pacific Ocean.

This is what we risk when we tear the earth open and expose it to the sky. It’s what farmers in the United States’  midwest experienced in the 1930s, when intensive ploughing, combined with drought, caused the infamous Dust Bowl. In the wake of the dust storms that ravaged the prairies, destitute farmers fled, mostly to California, their plight inspiring John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Blows like the one I witnessed at Ōmarama are uncommon, but we are still losing soil at afien astonishing rate—192 million tonnes of it a year. Most of that erodes from steep hill country in the form of slips, like the fresh scars left on the East Cape/Te Tai Rāwhiti by Cyclone Gabrielle. Erosion from tilled land—areas that have been ploughed, harrowed, disked and raked—is far slower, but can still be significant. Not only that, a growing body of science shows that too much tillage can lead to a deterioration in soil health.

Gaye Day, of Dayboo Clydesdale Stud near Ashburton (middle), relaxes with friends Jordan Imms-Protheroe and Angelique Protheroe. Day loves the “complications” of competitive ploughing. “It’s a real learning curve—different soils, different adjustments on the plough; and then you hit things like big stones and [buried] waratahs that can throw it all to hell as well.”
“Continuous cultivation of the soil gradually strips the organic matter out of it,” says soil scientist John Baker. “Your soil becomes much more sterile—devoid of biology.” By comparison, reducing tillage, studies have shown, results in soils having more organic soil carbon and microbial activity—the stuff that makes them rich and productive.

Baker first became interested in minimum-till and no-till techniques, which use seed drills to plant with as little disturbance as possible, in 1967. He has since developed a no-till machine called the Cross Slot, which his company now sells.

Ploughing, he says, has caused immense damage to the world’s soils. “The only good thing it did is that it allowed a small number of people to produce a lot of food for a lot of people cheaply.”

Globally, over-ploughing is one factor, alongside deforestation and overgrazing, that has contributed to a massive decline in soil productivity. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that a third of the world’s soils are now degraded; they have lost fertility, structure, or have become too acidic, akaline, or polluted. Up to 90 per cent could be degraded within two decades. Globally, a soccer field’s worth of soil erodes every five seconds.

There is an element of history repeating in this. Agriculture built some of our great civilisations, but did it also help destroy them? Some scholars are convinced that over-cultivation hastened the demise of the Greek and Roman empires, among others. Through deforestation, and by working their soils too hard, they caused those soils to become unproductive and to be eroded away. The fear is that, with modern equipment, we could achieve the same results, only faster.

[Chapter Break]

Ploughing has come to be seen, in some quarters, as an arcane and destructive way of cultivating land. But is that really the case?

No-till methods have been adopted around the world, most dramatically in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina, where up to 90 per cent of arable farming is now no-till.

But no-till comes with a catch. Whereas ploughing kills weeds through disturbance and burial, no-till cultivation is usually instead dependent on herbicides, and one chemical in particular—glyphosate, commonly marketed as Roundup.

Globally, glyphosate use has soared in recent decades, partly driven by the uptake of minimum-till and no-till techniques. While proponents of no-till agriculture argue that glyphosate is safe to humans and environmentally friendly, many concerns about its impact on human and soil health remain unresolved. And because it’s been used so much, the spray doesn’t work as well as it used to. For many weed species, glyphosate resistance is emerging as a major problem around the world. That’s seeing some farmers revert to ploughing.

In organic farming, ploughing is, in most cases, still necessary to combat weeds. Mark Measures is a farming advisor who has been at the forefront of organic farming research in the United Kingdom for more than 40 years. Ploughing, he says, doesn’t deserve the bad rap it often gets these days. “The act of cultivation, he says, is “a very effective method of weed control and mobilising soil fertility.”

Soils, he points out, vary greatly from place to place in their ability to withstand ploughing. “Particularly some of the soils in the UK, they’re very stable, very ancient soils. They will stand a lot of cultivation. But that’s not true of all soils. It is very site-specific.”

The key to protecting soil structure and health, he says, is not ploughing too deep or frequently, and rotating crops. “If you’ve got continuous cropping, and you’re ploughing once or twice every year, you’re more likely to do damage to the soil structure.”

Farmers who wish to minimise soil damage, he says, “need a tractor driver who is very skilled. It’s more difficult to plough shallow than it is to plough deep.”

Soil scientist Mike Beare of Plant and Food Research says there is “no silver bullet” when it comes to retaining soil productivity. His research has shown that over long periods of time, there is little difference in carbon loss (which can often equate to declining productivity) between tilled and non-tilled land. What actually makes the most difference is maintaining a cover crop between harvests, which protects the soil from erosion and replenishes its fertility.

To Taylor, this is nothing new. “In England, back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up a lot of arable farmers would plant barley, wheat and then a legume and then plough it back into grass.They were doing, 50 years ago, what the experts say we should be doing today. The wheel just goes around.”

Whichever way we grow food, it seems, we risk damage to the soil. The best we can do, says Measures, is to treat our soils with the utmost respect and care, and disturb them as little as possible.

[Chapter Break]

When Bob Mehrtens’ three hours are up, he feels a quiet confidence in his work. He steps down off his tractor and wanders around his competitors’ plots. I’ll keep my own plot, he thinks. I’m quite happy with that. As he predicted, most of them went too deep.

Robert Weavers took third place in the vintage plough section. At its heart, competitive ploughing is about keeping alive the skills that built our agricultural economy. But as a society, we are re-evaluating our relationship to the plough. With the human population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, figuring out how to sustainably feed the world may be our most urgent challenge.

Later that evening, Mehrtens is crowned with his 13th national ploughing championship. The tired ploughers, along with their machines and horses, line up to form a slow parade back to the staging area.

As the sun disappears, the horses turn in for the night, chewing their hay in the darkness.

Mehrtens packs up his gear and prepares to head back to his day job running a busy South Canterbury trucking firm. In the back of his mind is the world championships in Latvia, at which he’ll soon compete. He’ll ship his own tractor and plough out there, a big expense, but one he says is worth it.

Ploughing, after all, is Mehrtens’ life. For him, it’s the deep satisfaction he gets from seeing the soil turned—soft, clean and straight—and the sense of connection with the earth. It’s traveling the country and the world experiencing the different soils from place to place, and rising to the challenge each one presents. And perhaps, most of all, it’s catching up with old mates and celebrating the farming way of life he loves.

“It’s just a sport,” he tells me, “but it’s a good one. And it’s a rural one. That’s what I like.”

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