~ Riceland Meadows ~

Broken Ground & Broken Bread
by Ralph Rice

The trailer door closes on the last team of horses loaded. The field is turned over, the plowing match complete. Our turnout of 15 teams and teamsters represented several farms and a few breeds—Percherons, Belgians, Clydesdales, and ponies.

We had all gathered at the host farm about 7:00 this morning and spent the first half of the day plowing just for fun. Walking plows and riding plows followed one another in random fashion. All forenoon we laughed, joked, shared information, and took turns trying different plows or showing an upcoming teamster a few tricks of the trade. Each teamster tried to leave a clean straight furrow for the team coming behind.

After a noon hour of resting, eating, and more stories we find the contest field laid out and waiting. We draw our numbers from a hat and the competition begins. The usual rules of strike out, then three rounds to the right, and finish to the left are explained. We take our places at the numbered stake corresponding with the number we drew from the hat. Each teamster has a friend or family member positioned at the numbered stake on the opposite end of the field, to mark our furrow and help us distinguish our stakes from those on either side.

The field judge tells us to go ahead and plowing begins. A few teamsters strike out with furrows as straight as a string, while a few others don't seem to know which stake to plow to. For me the hardest and most exciting parts of a plow match are striking out, or making the first furrow, and finishing up, or making the last furrow. My heart beats fast and my mouth goes dry.

My hands guide the plow while my voice and a taut line guide the horses. Today we do pretty well, but not as well as we have done other days. We turn around exactly at the stake and make our return trip, being careful to lay this strip of sod slightly on top of or next to our first strip. Upon reaching our starting point, we take care to stop exactly at the beginning to create a straight and perfect headland.

I always rest a minute after striking out. I need to settle down, catch my breath, and gather my thoughts. The work is not hard, but the intensity takes my breath away. I lay down my lines and talk to the horses, reassuring both them and myself.

We start out again, making our three turns to the right. We make each furrow as straight as possible, while stopping at each end in an even fashion. This part of the contest is easy, just walking along guiding the plow as needed to straighten a furrow or bury some stubble.

Our third round completed, we finish to the left—making left turns at the headland and finishing the space between where we started and our neighbor on the left, hoping he had a good start too. A plowman must check the headlands often to maintain an even appearance. He must learn to slice the land to his advantage to straighten a furrow or bury a mistake. Almost anyone can flip dirt over, but flipping it where you want takes practice.

We work the land down to the last strip of about 10" or 12" width. Removing this small strip will create our dead furrow, our last ditch and our last chance to win the contest. At this stage I take another breather. Then, following the words of a mentor, forever indelibly etched on my mind, I split the little strip of sod. As I walk the team while carefully guiding the plow, I can feel the patient hand of my old friend on my shoulder.

Reaching the end of the furrow, I turn my team around and make ready for our last return trip. This time, to remove the small remaining strip, they must walk close together. We need to turn over this last little piece to create our dead furrow. It must be straight, clean, and even—beginning and ending precisely at the headland on each end. This skill is easy to describe, but hard to master.

The judge walks around and over the plowed ground, checking each teamster's efforts, while we plowmen rest our teams at the ends of our sections, visiting with each other or passing smiles and nods to one another. The judge calls our names from the top down to fifth place. Plaques, ribbons, and prize money are distributed to the sound of clapping from the crowd and teamsters. Prizes are also awarded to the team best matched, the ones that came the farthest and, my favorite, the best teamster. This trophy goes to the man with the best shown, best driven horses whose very thoughts are telegraphed back and forth through the 1" leather straps that are his lines.

Today my young team and I come in second in the walking plow class. I am pleased with our showing, as this competition is their first, working against several contestants who have been plowing for decades. To finish the day, we teamsters take turns plowing the remaining open ground, again following each other and poking fun at one another.

On this day, ground and bread have been broken, old friendships renewed, and new ones made. Having set a date for our next gathering—where we will again meet as friends and compete as rivals—we load up our horses and head back to the farm chores awaiting us all.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Spring 2005 issue.

09 May 2007