The horses are beefy, the farmers nostalgic and the legacy long.
This weekend, generations of farmers will keep an old tradition alive at the 73rd annual International Plowing match, the oldest such competition in the United States. About 40 draft horses and 20 humans will face off for most of a day on an empty field at Berthusen Park in Lynden, Washington.
It is a match that requires strength, yes, but also skills lost to modern times. The plowing has to be done using mostly voice commands. Slap the reins on a horse and sorry, farmer, you're out.
“Most of the guys that are plowing in the adult class are grandsons and sons of the guys that started this match,” explains George Bowen. Bowen grew up on a nearby dairy farm and has competed for 14 years.
“When they started it, it was a big deal, and these generations have continued to be that way,” he says. “Some of the generations are here in walkers and wheelchairs and they’re all coaching. It’s kind of a rite of passage, really.”
Fred Polinder, now in his 80s, first competed during World War II as a teenager. “Yup, everything was done with horses, there was no other way to get it done,” Polinder says.
“If you go out to win the plowing match, it’s the hardest work you do for the rest of the year, including haying,” Polinder says.
He took the trophy home five times.
The plowed furrows are scored on depth, firmness and packing, and the all-important “covering of weeds.” The teamsters aim to turn rough green sod into a stretch of brown cultivated earth that’s ready for seed.
In the 1960s and ’70s, up to 3,000 people gathered to watch the plowing match. Early competitors won a trophy and a sack of grain.
The teamsters still take it seriously. Craig Shagren’s father and grandfather were among those old-time champions and now his sons compete alongside him. “Gotta keep the tradition going,” he says. “If the younger kids don’t do it it’s going to die away, so gotta get the younger kids involved and teach them.”
Passing on that skill takes patience. Dan Weidkamp’s father and uncle were expert plowmen. Weidkamp showed his nephew Creighton Smith some skills he had learned from his uncle at a recent practice plowing session: “You see we have a knot tied in this line. So if you tie a knot in each line, that holds him back so they can be even when they’re walking. But a lot of guys don’t know that trick,” he chuckles. “That’s something I learned from my uncle.”
That uncle was Cornelius “Corny” Verduin, a Lynden farmer who helped start the plowing match and won it 13 times, more than any other competitor in its history. Creighton Smith will be using Verduin’s plow on Saturday. He knows he has big shoes to fill.
“Most everything I’ve learned has been from Dan,” he says. “A lot of things that he’s taught me he learned from Corny and from his dad. Yeah, it’s cool knowing that this has been the same way for so long working with horses in our family.”
Rene Manning agrees. Her mother, who competes in the plowing match in the ladies class, started teaching Rene to plow when she was 14. “It’s just to bring back old times. You just can’t all turn to machines, you gotta keep some old-fashioned in there.”
George Bowen learned about plowing from his grandfather and thinks old-fashioned is just great.
“There’s a point where all of a sudden you find that it’s you and the horses,” he says. “And it’s very peaceful. There’s nothing quite like turning a furrow quietly and smelling the earth behind two horses.”
He says the horses “enjoy it, too. They almost compete with each other. They prance a little bit more, they watch each other. It’s like a bunch of little kids, really.
“People see these animals as large compared to what they normally think of as a horse,” he says. “But they’re also surprised to see how gentle they are It’s really a connection I see people trying to make in their daily lives.
“Sometimes human to human isn’t very workable, but human to horse really works for me.”
The International Plowing Match will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 17 and is free to the public.
Sarah Eden Wallace is a Bellingham-based freelance journalist and author of “100 Years at the Northwest Washington Fair.”