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Plow and the stars: World’s best plowmen dig the competition in Baudette

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Gene Gruber, the U.S. competitor at the World Plowing Championships 2019.
Gene Gruber is the U.S. competitor this year at the World Plowing Championships in Baudette, Minn. He’s well known in the international plowing scene. His father plowed in the worlds for many years, so did a bunch of his brothers. His 17-year-old daughter took sixth place in the championships last year in Germany.
John Enger | MPR News

In a windy field, down a middle-of-nowhere gravel road near Baudette, the best plow operators in the world practiced their craft.

Two days before the official competition, they dialed in their machinery and got a feel for the ground.

“That’s all we really worry about when we travel,” said Irish plow champion Eamonn Tracey. “We don’t worry about the food or accommodation. We’d sleep under the tractors if the ground was good.”

Eamonn Tracy won the 2018 World Plowing Championships.
Eamonn Tracy won the 2018 World Plowing Championships. He runs a farm in Ireland, but took a few weeks off to compete in Baudette, Minn. He tuned each plow blade to perfectly suit northern Minnesota’s sandy ground.
John Enger | MPR News

And Baudette’s ground is good, he said. It’s sandy. Sand shows mistakes, and Tracey said he doesn’t make mistakes.

“Sandy ground separates the good plowmen from the bad,” he said.

Tracey won the world championship last year. He’s a star back in Ireland, where plowing is big.

Baudette, Minn.
Baudette, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

The event is held in a different country every year. It was in Germany last time. Russia will host it next. This year, just like nearly every other competitor, Tracey shipped his machinery all the way across the ocean to Baudette in a steel container. It cost $15,000, which was paid for by his local plowing association.

Every competitor uses pretty much the same old school style of moldboard plow. The kind of equipment you’d see farmers using in the 1950s.

Each contender plows two small plots of land. It doesn’t really matter how long it takes. They’re judged on the straightness and symmetry of their furrows. The standards are incredibly exacting.

The land where the World Plowing Championships are held.
During the World Plowing Championships, each competitor plows two small plots of land. It doesn’t matter a whole lot how long it takes. They’re judged on the straightness and symmetry of their furrows. The standards are incredibly exacting.
John Enger | MPR News

To get those perfect, straight curls of sod, Tracey performed a week’s worth of complex surgery on his rig.

“We’ve been chopping and grinding,” he said. “Adding on pieces and cutting off pieces. Making it suit the ground here.”

There’s absolutely no money in the sport of plowing. Even so, Tracey said competition is fierce. He pointed down the field at the guys he’s up against.

About 30 yards away was David Chappell, a 73-year old farmer from England. He won the world championships in 2016. He did it in the pouring rain, with a small orange tractor he named “Blossom.”

David Chappell is the English plow champion.
David Chappell is the English plow champion. He shipped his plow and tractor, which he named Blossom, to Baudette, Minn., for this year’s World Plowing Championships.
John Enger | MPR News

And 30 yards from him, was the 2017 champion. The American. Gene Gruber. Tracey is a confident man, but Gruber had him worried.

“Gene is probably going to be the man to beat,” Tracey said. “He’s on home ground. But that’s the challenge. If he wasn’t here, that wouldn’t be no good either. You need the best to be the best.”

Gene Gruber is a local guy from St. Cloud, Minn. He’s well known on the international plowing scene. His father, Werner, plowed in the world competition for many years. So did a bunch of his brothers. His 17-year-old daughter took sixth place in the championships last year in Germany.

It was Gruber who brought the championships to Baudette. The World Plowing Organization asked him to scout locations. There aren’t many farms with 1,000 acres of available grass and stubble.

Gruber has a wealth of knowledge, but in the days before the competition, he also had a problem. His rig is made up of two small plows attached to moldboards, which turn over the strips of sod.

One of those boards was bending in the wet dirt.

Gene Gruber is fixing a problem with his rig.
Two days before the World Plowing Championships, Gene Gruber noticed a problem with his rig. The two moldboard plows were uneven. His brother Conrad sighted between the boards from a distance as Gruber made adjustments.
John Enger | MPR News

“This is a major issue,” Gruber said. “One of my boards is throwing dirt a little differently. It’s making the furrows look wrong. If you don’t have balanced furrows, you don’t have anything.”

Gruber’s practice furrows looked perfect to a reporter. But his coach, a South Dakotan named Kevin Albrecht, said the reporter did not know what he was talking about and urged him to go lower.

Kneeling in the freshly plowed dirt, scanning the length of the furrows more closely, one furrow did look a bit more round than the other.

The judges are persnickety, Albrecht said. They’ll notice.

Gene Gruber makes an adjustment to his plow before the competition.
Gene Gruber makes a last-minute adjustment to his plow before the competition. He welded on a new turnbuckle to make the machinery more rigid.
John Enger | MPR News

Gruber welded on a turnbuckle to make the moldboard more rigid. There wasn’t much else he could do. He really wants to win, though winning isn't the entire point of the plowing championships.

The motto of the organization is a Latin phrase: Pax Arva Colat. It means, “let peace cultivate the land.” That came through clearly as a stranger tried to find the practice field.

A man from Scotland, one from Norway and a third whose origins were unclear, all offered up directions with varying levels of comprehension. But they were together in Baudette, united by a shared love of perfectly straight, symmetrical furrows.