How to become a champion plower: lessons from the 100th Chilliwack Plowing Match

Plowing is more than just a way to get fields ready for planting. At the Chilliwack Plowing Match, it's an annual competition of skill and technique.

By Grace Kennedy | April 11, 2022 |5:00 am

It is spring, and soon tractors will be rumbling down fields across the Fraser Valley. Their sharp plows will slice through the rich top soil and create furrows of exacting straightness. Seeds will be planted; shoots will grow. It is all part of the seasonal breath of the farming year.

There is more to plowing a field than one might expect. And in Chilliwack, that combination of technical skill and personal prowess has been celebrated for a century.

On April 2, 17 competitors gathered at Greendale Acres (also known as the site of the Chilliwack Corn Maze) for the 100th annual Chilliwack Plowing Match. Each competitor had their plot. Each had their tools. Each had a chance to become a champion plower.

The match has 11 individual events, divided into two sections—the tractors and the horses. Some of the events are for the opportunity to represent British Columbia in the National Championships; these are the conventional tractor plowing and reversible plow competitions. Others are for the joy of competition only: the antique tractors, the mayor’s division, the junior division, the horse-drawn Canadian walking plow.

Dennis Ryan plows his plot in the 100th annual Chilliwack Plowing Match. The reins for his horses loop around his back, and he holds the knee-high plow handles to maintain the correct depth of the furrow. 📸 Grace Kennedy

François Freyvogel was there for the horses. Freyvogel had been an international plowing champion for many years, hand-plowing in Switzerland with Norwegian Fjord horses before he came to Canada. He judged at the Chilliwack Plowing Match for years, and in 2016 was inducted into the International Plowing Match hall of fame.

But on Saturday—now past both his plowing and his judging days—Freyvogel was a mere spectator. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t willing to share his keen eye with fellow visitors.

Freyvogel watched a team of two horses being ushered ahead by one of the competitors. The reins for the horses wrapped around the competitor’s waist, and his hands grasped the two handles on a low plow.

“The key thing when they’re plowing is that the furrows have to be totally straight,” he said. The plow must go six inches down into the ground, and the soil needs to cover the weeds completely. (This prevents the weeds from growing back during the season.) The first six furrows—the cut each plow makes into the ground—make the crown of the plot, and they need to be straight and close together.

“If you are on a walking plow like they are now, the fact is that you have to adjust the plow at certain depths. You cannot go right away to six inches.” he added. “So that’s more complicated than you think.”

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Phil Rogers adjusts his plow after completing a furrow in the 100th annual Chilliwack Plowing Match on Saturday, April 2. 📸 Grace Kennedy

Jim Sache, another long-time judge, agreed. Although Sache judges the tractor plowing rather than the horse-drawn categories, the considerations are similar. And the techniques show there is always more to plowing than meets the untrained eye.

Sache started competitive plowing after attending the Chilliwack Plowing Match in 1972 with his brother. Although he made it to the national championships, he never advanced to the world’s, where competitors from around the globe plow for international acclaim. (Although Canada hosted, and won, the first World Ploughing Championships in 1953, the countries to beat today are Scotland and Austria, Sache said.)

In 1985, Sache was invited to judge a Canadian national match in New Brunswick. He went on to judge several world matches and represent Canada in the World Ploughing Championships board of directors.

“For a few years I kind of missed the competitive part,” Sache said. “As a plowman, you know what the judges are looking for and you try to make the perfect furrows and keep things straight. As a judge, you watch these plowmen [and] you know what they’re doing wrong, but you can’t tell them because it’s a competition.”

Rosedale resident Francis Sache won the reversible plowing competition at the Chilliwack Plowing Match this year. He had previously represented Canada at the World Ploughing Match in 2018. 📸 Grace Kennedy

This year, Sache’s nephew Francis won the reversible plowing competition in Chilliwack, carving his triangular-shaped plot with a plow that changed directions using the tractor’s hydraulics. Mike Strotman won the conventional competition. Sache had watched Strotman work for several years and praised his crown and furrows, which were tighter and straighter than his competitors.

“You compare it to figure skating,” Sache said. “I don’t follow figure skating, but you can tell the difference with someone that skates a good program and someone that doesn’t. It’s the same with plowing.”

Both Francis Sache and Strotman will be heading to the Canadian Plowing Championships in River, Man., in May. The Canadian winners will advance to the World Ploughing Competition in September. (Originally set to take place in Russia, it will now be held in Ireland after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)

Plowing is still a thriving sport in places like Ontario, but Sache wonders what the future will hold for the competition in Chilliwack. There are fewer young people plowing, he said, and although the Chilliwack Plowing Match has lasted for 100 years, the competitive side may not survive for much longer.

Antique tractor plowing has long been a popular event at the Chilliwack Plowing Match, with some of the tractors dating back to the very first competitions in the area. 📸 Grace Kennedy

“The antiques, I think they’ll always be around,” Sache said, referring to the decades- or century-old tractors that take to the field for fun during the competition.

“But it’s just the competitive side of it… if four or five young people want to step up and say ‘Let’s give this a try,’ that would be great. Because we have lots of tractors and plows that they could use.”

Not to mention, a wealth of history and reams of judging expertise to get them chugging on their way.


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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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