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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.