Fields of Gold: How ploughing became one of NZ's oldest sports

by Mike White / 29 July, 2018
Photography by Mike White.

Alistair Rutherford of Gore, winner of the vintage class.

Ploughing transformed New Zealand, shaped our farmland, and is one of this country’s oldest sports. Mike White travelled to Thornbury in Southland for the 2018 New Zealand Ploughing Championships, where tradition and tension combined in a memorable spectacle.

He cut a disconsolate figure. Blue overalls, muddied boots and the look of a man whose hopes have been hollowed out. “What a shit of a day,” he sighed as he came around the side of his John Deere tractor and took off his glasses.

It had all been going so well for Ian Woolley, the defending titleholder at the national ploughing championships. He’d been streets ahead of the competition after the first day’s ploughing and looked unbeatable.

But right from the start of the second day, it had all gone wrong. The first row he ploughed – the opening split, they call it – collapsed and there was nothing he could do about it. In 20 years of top ploughing, he’d never faced something like this, and staring down the crumbling row Woolley knew the judges would crucify him for it. His repeated efforts to fix it only saw him overrun his allotted time, accruing an additional penalty. Then, as he started on the rest of the plot, the main wheel supporting his plough buckled. “It just went bang and when I got to the end of the row, I realised what had happened – the wheel was like a broken leg.”

A bolt holding it in place had sheared and, unable to repair it, Woolley had to replace the whole wheel with a spare he carried.

The 54-year-old Marlborough grape grower looked across his completed plot, a 100m x 20m rectangle of methodically inverted grass, and wondered if his hopes of winning the Silver Plough trophy for a fifth time had just vanished somewhere in its furrows and folds. “It’ll be interesting. It’s all over and done with – you can’t change it.”

He hoped the lead he’d gained on the first day would be enough to keep him in front and win. But in his heart he began to doubt it. Holding the broken wheel in his hand, he stared down at where it had snapped. “Yeah, bugger this.”

Charlie Davis (left) and Tom Fowler compete in the vintage class. The plough was made by Fowler’s ancestors, who used it with horses.

Andrew Hall bent down and scooped up a handful of soil. His soil. The soil that clung to his tractor tyres and etched itself into his palms. These paddocks have been in his family for 130 years, and he is the fourth generation to plant them, worry over them, harvest them, then plant them again.

Originally they ran cows, supplying small dairy factories scattered across Southland. Then they got sheep, and planted oats to feed the horse teams, and now Hall grows barley here.

Waikiwi loam, they call the soil, laid down over thousands of years from the windblown greywacke and schist rocks in the hills. It was good soil, Hall said. A bit heavy after rain, and down there in the hollow, he said, sweeping his arm towards his property’s edge, you can get into peat, really black stuff. But on the whole it was fertile, never needed irrigating, and was mercifully free of stones.

So two years ago, when the organising committee from the Thornbury Vintage Tractor and Implement Club approached Hall about using his paddocks for the national ploughing championships, he was more than happy to help out. It’s what you do in a small community like Thornbury. And Hall knew his soil was ideal for the competition.

Ploughing in New Zealand goes back to the beginning of European settlement. On 3 May 1820, the missionary Rev. John Butler recorded the first use of an agricultural plough, turning fernland into farmland and planting wheat at Kerikeri. “I felt much pleasure in holding it after a team of six bullocks,” he wrote in his diary that night. “I trust that this day will be remembered with gratitude and its anniversary kept by ages yet unborn. Each heart rejoiced in this auspicious day and said, ‘May God speed the plough.’”

Butler was later sacked, possibly unjustly, for drunkenness, and packed off back to England. But the wish that his efforts that day would be remembered have been fulfilled, with the premier trophy at the national championships, the Silver Plough, bearing a replica of the plough Butler used and inscriptions from his diary.

As more settlers arrived, ploughs and the horse-teams that pulled them broke in farmland across the country. Ploughing competitions sprang up, but it wasn’t until 1956 that a national contest was held. Now in their 63rd year, the championships include categories for horses and vintage tractors as well as modern machinery. On the first day, they plough stubble – land where barley or wheat has grown. On the second day, they plough grassland, which has been used for grazing stock. Anything more technical than some tools and a tape-measure is banned: no GPS, no cellphones. You have three hours to finish.

From the outside, it might seem an obscure and frivolous arena for competition. But, together with shearing, it’s among New Zealand’s oldest sports, and undoubtedly one of the most practical. The aim is reasonably simple. Plough your plot as evenly and neatly and straightly as possible. Hide all the grass or stubble that used to be there by folding it upside down. Don’t leave any holes. Make the ends really tidy with no tyre marks. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, and a total of 12 judges minutely examine each plot. But for the punter rather than the purist, its essence lies in this description by the New Zealand Ploughing Association: “Workmanship must be pleasing to the eye.” Or as Ian Woolley puts it: “It’s all about the look. It’s a bit like Miss World, but you’re looking at soil.” 

Judges at work. A total of 12 judges examine every plot, looking at different aspects of the ploughing.

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The frost was showing no signs of budging from Andrew Hall’s paddocks when the ploughmen arrived for the first day of competition. “Just reminding us that winter’s coming,” grumped an onlooker, Highlanders beanie tugged below his ears.

Half an hour from Invercargill, 10 minutes from Riverton and just down the road from Thornbury, a small town of tents and tractors had sprung up on Hall’s farm. To get here, the ploughmen had to win a regional competition, so there were no real novices, and for many it was their 10th or 20th finals. For Timaru’s Bob Mehrtens, it was his 40th. “Started when I was 12,” he said. “I went to a match and thought, ‘I reckon I could do that,’ and I stuck with it.”

He had a farm for a while, but Roger Douglas’ reforms in the 80s recalibrated rural New Zealand and stuffed him, so he started a trucking business. The passion for ploughing continued though, and Mehrtens has become one of New Zealand’s most successful exponents, now competing in the reversible class, and finishing second at last year’s world championships in Kenya.

What people don’t realise, Mehrtens said, is how many parts a plough had and how many variables there are for each one. The shears cut and lift the soil; the coulter cuts the furrow wall; the skimmer cuts the corner off the furrow; the mouldboards turn the furrow over. Miniscule adjustments to any of them can make major differences. “And then you’ve got the joker in the cab who has to do everything else right,” said Mehrtens. “I never stop learning. I walk round and watch some of these young buggers and think, ‘Shit, that’s a good idea, why didn’t I think of that?’”

Beyond the bonhomie and beneath the overalls there were a few nerves, but most ignored them. “You’ve got a job to do, so you go and do it,” insisted Canterbury’s Peter Mehrtens. “Just treat it like a day’s work.”

He was back at the nationals for the first time in four years, unable to stay away. “You get that wee feeling. It’s in your blood – I missed it. Just like whitebaiting; you go whitebaiting every year, you’ve got to go ploughing every year.”

Tinkering with his tractor, Ian Woolley was less successful masking any anxiety. “I’ve won it four times before and everyone expects you to win – well, that’s in my mind. At five o’clock this morning, I was sitting there thinking, ‘Oh god, I’d rather not be doing this.’ But once I get under way it’ll be all right – you get into your own little world.”

Like most competitors, Woolley had his support team, including wife Jenny, who perched on a hay bale at the end of his plot while he ploughed. When she first met Woolley, he took her to a ploughing match in Gore, where she spent two lousy days in the rain watching him. “I didn’t know anything about ploughing then, but I knew this guy meant something to me,” she said. “You have to love them to sit here.”

The couple’s honeymoon included two weeks ploughing in Australia.

Also cheering Woolley were Mark Taylor and Alastair McNeill, mates who’d followed him to national championships for eight years and had driven down from Christchurch for this year’s finals. They’d rolled in to the house they were all sharing in Riverton after midnight, capped off the day with a few bourbons, and were now headed to the Winton trots, but had promised Woolley they’d swing by later to see how he was doing.

At 10am, the competitors gathered in a large circle to receive their final instructions. They synchronised watches, wished each other good luck with a round of handshakes, then cranked and started their tractors, the slow revolution of diesel engines shrouding the grounds in a low thrum. Piercing this was the peal of bagpipes as the Waimatuku Southern Scenic Highland Pipe Band wheeled and marched in their kilts and Red Bands, leading the competitors to the fields.

Among them was Tryphena Carter, one of two women in the tractor-ploughing field. Her dad, 75-year-old Gordon, was also competing, in the vintage class, where he’d come second last year. Tryphena, 30, grew up on a farm but now works in a bank, valuing rural properties. It was her ninth nationals and she was adamant there’s nothing stopping more women taking up ploughing. Physical strength is largely irrelevant. Far more important is brain power – calculating times, measuring distances, and coordinating all the parts on the plough. “It’s quite mathematical. If you get it wrong, you get yourself into a real big pickle.”

At the far end of the grounds were the horses, including Colin Drummond’s team of six Clydesdales from Erewhon Station, 14,000ha of near-mythical scenery high in Canterbury’s mountains. Virtually all Erewhon’s ploughing is still done with the horses they breed. It would be quicker to use tractors, Drummond admitted, but he’s keen to preserve the tradition, train his Clydesdales for the station’s tourist wagon tours, and cut his fuel bill.

“The more you use horses, the better they get. The more you use tractors, the richer the bloody Arabs get. It’s 100% sustainable.”

Drummond’s partner, Erin Cassie, was competing with a team of four Clydesdales. She said people relish the mix of nostalgia and practicality when they see horses ploughing. “We’ve really noticed in the last few years, as the world speeds up and people are living on cellphones and all the rest of it, this is nice for them to appreciate a slower pace of life.”

Cassie finished third at last year’s nationals; she and Drummond conceded Middlemarch’s Sean Leslie and Casey Rae were dead-cert favourites, Leslie having won the title for the past two years with another teammate. “Yeah, the odds – they’re not paying a lot of money for me,” Leslie said, but stressed nothing was guaranteed when working with horses.

Seated sideline was their coach, Davey Murdoch, who owns the horses and plough but was forced to give up competing when arthritis buggered his body. With Akubra hat, slouching moustache, and tobacco tucked into his top pocket, Murdoch loves nothing more than watching horses work a field in unison. He’s had horses all his life, rescued this plough from becoming a garden ornament, and has tried to pass on all he can to Leslie.

“It’s important to keep the interest in this going. Once it dies out, she’s gone – you’ll never learn from a book if you want to start up again.”

Father and daughter, Gordon and Tryphena Carter, are both regular competitors at the national championships. Gordon, 75, finished third in the vintage class.

As the first day ended, the ploughmen regathered in the main marquee and swapped stories of woe. Sticky soil, obstinate animals, misfiring tractors... “I was bulldozing, not ploughing.”

But with mince pies in one hand and Speight’s stubbies in the other, competitors were soon relaxing and rating their performances more positively. There was always tomorrow, they nodded.

But the next day offered no favours. While you could hide your mistakes ploughing stubble, most agreed grass was far tougher. And this grass was tough, unploughed for years, its roots drilled deep into leathery dirt, unfamiliar to many and unforgiving to all – even the favourites.

On the first day, Ian Woolley had ploughed perhaps the best stubble plot of his life. He’d gone home happy, had tea at the Riverton pub, and watched the rugby. While his mates stayed on at the hotel till they were dropped home by the publican, Woolley was in bed by 9.30pm and slept well. He was up at six, at the grounds by eight, had checked and sharpened his gear, and was well set for the second day’s competition. But as he started ploughing, Woolley turned round and watched in disbelief as the row fell in on itself all the way back to where he’d begun.

Woolley grew up at Spring Creek, a bit north of Blenheim on the way to Picton, between the railway lines and the river. In those days, the area was full of fruit trees, and farmers eking a living milking cows, growing crops and fattening sheep. But by the time Woolley was in his 20s, grapes had begun marching into Marlborough, with the family’s 26ha farm sitting amid the province’s most prized vineyard land, along the “golden mile” of Rapaura Rd.

Woolley held out for quite a long while, continuing with crops and cattle, but in 2005 he did the sums with his accountant and began planting his corn paddocks in sauvignon blanc. The irony is that as vineyards have swallowed the Wairau Valley’s productive land, fields that need ploughing have almost disappeared. To practise, Woolley now relies on a nearby sheep farmer who’s refused to yield to grapes, and vineyard owners who’ve kept odd paddocks free.

Woolley played senior rugby for 13 years – halfback, first-five and hooker at local club Moutere, just down the road from his house – but ploughing has been his sport for 20 years now. However, nothing he’d learnt in that time had prepared him for his now-collapsing furrows, and as he climbed from his tractor and viewed the disaster, he struggled to think how to fix it.

Several hundred metres away, Scott McKenzie was having his own problems. The former champion was considered Woolley’s main challenger and he was determined to reclaim the Silver Plough trophy. McKenzie had last won it in 2010, but then lost half his thumb in a wood-splitter, and that had taken ages to come right. He’d done a pretty good job yesterday, ploughing stubble, but today, on the grass, there was near-catastrophe when his plough’s tyre went flat.

“Luckily my wife’s a good mountainbiker and she had a big pump in the car,” he said. “So I made her run away back to the car – after she’d biked round Lake Hāwea yesterday.”

Today’s ploughing had some nerve-racking moments, but McKenzie was used to this kind of grass on his own farm at Clinton. “This isn’t straight, but it’s pretty straight – and there’ll be some wobbly ones out there today.”

His plot looked beautiful, and several passersby congratulated him. “Consistent enough to be in the top couple?” McKenzie asked, and the onlookers nodded confidently.

The winner of the two main tractor categories will represent New Zealand at next year’s world championships in America, and McKenzie dearly wanted to get there. He looked across the paddock to where Woolley now stood beside his tractor, not much taller than its rear tyre. “But I guess it all depends how Mr Woolley’s gone.”

Casey Rae.

“Steady… steady…” Kylie Northcott intoned to her horses. “Come over a bit… a little bit – not half a paddock!”

One plot over, Northcott’s father, Derrick Thornton, was getting equally frustrated with his toey horses. “They’re starting to think they know what they’re doing.”

Next to him, Sean Leslie and Casey Rae were at their wits end, and watching their champions’ title disappear. Their youngest horse, Anna, was simply refusing to respond. She’d move forward a few metres then step out of the furrow and stop. Time and again, Leslie and Rae cajoled and encouraged her, but she continued to stamp all over the plot, destroying the finish.

They swore till they were all out of swearing. They threw dirt, and flicked the reins down her flank, but nothing could make Anna pull the plough. Rae was in tears and Leslie could only pull another cigarette from his pocket to try and calm himself.

After five rows, Leslie turned to coach Davey Murdoch, shrugged his shoulders and mouthed, “What the fuck?” Murdoch looked on, emotionless. “The joys of ploughing with horses,” he replied.

At a loss, Leslie was about to give up, not wanting to push his horses any further. Seeing what was happening, Colin Drummond told his Clydesdales to stand steady, walked across to Leslie and Rae, and in a wonderful act of sportsmanship told them he had a spare horse they could borrow. Drummond knew he would probably win if Leslie and Rae couldn’t continue, but didn’t want it to end that way.

Eventually Murdoch suggested swapping their two horses around, so the troublesome Anna wasn’t walking in the furrow, which immediately calmed her. At the end of three hours, with their plot completed, Leslie was exhausted. “Some days are better than others,” he sighed.

Davey Murdoch looked on, smiling. “It’s the old story: if it’s got tits, tyres or a two-stroke, it’s going to give you a problem.”

That evening, more than 200 people packed the nearby Wallacetown Community Centre to hear the weekend’s results announced. Until then, nobody had any idea how the judges had scored each plot, only able to fill the uncertainty with guesswork and gossip. Much of the guesswork proved accurate, and most of the gossip well-informed.

Gore’s Alistair Rutherford won the vintage category, and the tireless Bob Mehrtens bounced up on stage to receive the reversible class trophy again.

In the horses, Sean Leslie and Casey Rae’s first-day efforts on stubble saw them win the overall title, ahead of Colin Drummond, who had the highest score for that day’s grass paddocks.

But when it came to the results for the conventional class – for the Silver Plough trophy – things became tense. Woolley was announced the winner of the stubble ploughing from day one, with Scott McKenzie third. But when McKenzie was declared the winner of the grassland ploughing, with Woolley not in the top three, Woolley figured he’d blown it, the day’s disasters sending him out the back door and out of contention. He could hardly bear to listen to the next sentence.

“And the overall winner of the 2018 Gulf Oil Silver Plough trophy is…” pronounced the black-blazered MC, “… Ian Woolley.”

It took a few seconds for it to sink in, and for Woolley to collect himself, as relief rushed in to replace expected disappointment. He’d only finished fifth on the second day, but his first-day score was so far ahead of his rivals, it was enough to take the overall title by 15 points from McKenzie.

There were congratulations and handshakes and a speech. There was a trip to the world championships in America next year to think about. There was pudding of pavlova and cheesecake and banoffee pie.

And tomorrow, there was the long drive home, through Central Otago’s autumn colours, around Christchurch’s broken rim, and up Kaikōura’s ruptured coast, till they reached Spring Creek. And there he’d unload his tractor and equipment, and place the Silver Plough trophy on a table in the lounge, looking out over the land he once ploughed and the grapes he’d planted.

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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