Best ploughman competition kicks off in Watou

Summary

Two dozen farmers recently competed for the title of Belgium’s best ploughman. The competition wants to bring more visibility to ploughing and the technology behind it.

Farmers battle it out to be named country’s finest ploughman

Earlier this month, in a field in the furthest reaches of West Flanders, a special competition took place. In Watou, on the French border, two dozen farmers and their tractors competed for the title of Belgium’s best ploughman. Top placers will go on to represent the country on the international stage at the European Championships and the World Cup.

Competitor Jens De Backer is cautious when I ask him how he got on. “I wasn’t first, but I certainly wasn’t last,” he smiles. Behind him lies a freshly ploughed field, the result of a few hours’ work. Fourth place at a provincial match in East Flanders earned him a ticket to the national championship. “I do it for fun,” he says. “I don’t have any special equipment or anything like most others here. My plough comes straight from the field.”

De Backer is one of 23 who competed earlier this month for the title of Belgium’s best ploughman. The competition is open to farmers of all ages, but as it’s sponsored by an organisation for young farmers, that’s mostly who it attracts.

Watou is in the farthest corner of Flanders, the landscape a patchwork of corn, beet and wheat fields. A sturdy wind blows over the wide open spaces. It’s an ideal location for this kind of competition, in other words.

Each participant is assigned his own numbered plot. It’s not a nice neat square but a trapezium to make it more difficult: It’s precision that counts, not speed. The concentration is almost palpable, and soon the air is full of the smell of freshly tilled earth and the sound of murmuring engines.

Assessment categories

From the sidelines, the public comments on the competitor’s work. The vast majority of them are farmers themselves and talk about the ploughmen and their efforts in terms that are incomprehensible to any outsider (the West Flemish dialect also doesn’t help). A little further on, events are far less serious. On a makeshift racecourse, some farmers test their agility with the tractor, in challenges including balancing on a swinging bridge.

I do it for fun

- Jens De Backer

Meanwhile, the wheat stubble has been largely tilled over and the jury walks from plot to plot. To the untrained eye, every piece looks the same, but the jury knows better, explains Hugo Verhoeven. Himself once a competitive ploughman, Verhoeven is chair of the Belgian Ploughing Committee. He shows me a list of the 20 or so categories on which the participants are assessed.

“Many factors play a role. Is the furrow straight and even, does the ploughman manage to cover all the stubble, does he remain inside the lines of his plot and so on. We judge everything while he is at work, and we also award points for the general look of the field afterwards.”

Is Flanders particularly rich in ploughing talent? “We certainly can’t complain,” says Verhoeven. “Today we’ve even had a former world champion on the field here. Next year it’s our turn to host the European Championship, and the best ploughmen today will represent our country.”

Formula 1

Ploughing competitions have been around for a long time, he explains, but there have been some changes over the years. “Most participants have special competition ploughs, which they assemble themselves, and there’s a lot of technical knowledge involved. The same is true in other sports: You wouldn’t enter a Formula 1 race with a normal car.”

There’s a lot of technical knowledge involved

- Hugo Verhoeven

By the end of the afternoon, there is no more wheat stubble to see. The jury has finished its task and has chosen a winner in each category, based on the kind of plough used: Niels Marien and Tom Smits, both of Antwerp province, walk away with the titles.

The competition in Watou is organised by Groene Kring (Green Circle), the association for young farmers and horticulturists. “Ploughing is an agricultural activity, but it’s also a technique that you have to learn,” says Ellen Vos, Groene Kring’s co-ordinator, “so it’s ideal to hold a contest around it. For us, it is also a way to promote ploughing and the technology behind it.”

The festive atmosphere today might hide the fact, but for young farmers, times are difficult. A farm requires a huge capital investment, and regulations are quite strict. Moreover, farmers have no control over the price of their products. It’s almost exclusively a family business, with new start-ups almost non-existent.

“That’s why the Groene Kring seeks to support young farmers as much as possible,” says Vos. “By defending their interests and offering training – but also by bringing together young farmers.”

Flemish agriculture and horticulture

Flanders is an important global food exporter. The main agricultural activities differ from region to region – with pig, cow, vegetable and dairy-farming the most important. In recent years, the sector has been heavily affected by the economic downturn and falling global food prices.
Green - Organic farming accounts for just a fraction of Flemish agriculture, but the sector has slowly been growing in recent years.
Greenhouse - Flanders has been a trailblazer in mapping the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Forgotten - Flemish horticulture’s “Bel’Orta” label aims to promote lesser-known vegetables like parsnip, parsley root and kohlrabi.
90

percent of Belgium’s fruit harvest comes from Flanders

25 982

agriculture businesses in Flanders in 2011

51 530

people employed in Flemish agriculture and horticulture in 2011