‘A bit of light at the end of this dark tunnel…’ – What the ‘Ploughing’ could have been

The loss of the National Ploughing Championships brings the loss of many things this year: an event that has an annual economic impact reported to be in the region of €45 million; the 89th year of tradition; the potential to attract 297,000 visitors like last year; and “the annual celebration of rural Ireland”.

It was announced today (Friday, August 28) that the National Ploughing Championships will not go ahead behind closed doors next month, with only some qualifier matches taking place at a later date in October.

The decision was taken by the National Ploughing Association (NPA) executive on foot of the rising number of Covid-19 cases in recent weeks and months.

‘The right to do’

AgriLand spoke to Anna Marie McHugh of the NPA following today’s announcement.

“We looked at it many times and considered doing things many different ways. I can tell you it was very difficult to have to inform people, especially the ploughmen, that it’s not happening,” McHugh said.

On the other hand, according to McHugh, it wasn’t a very divisive decision in the end. Taking public health guidelines into consideration, she says while it might be unfortunate to see a shell of the usual event taking place this year, scaling back the event is the “right thing to do”.

“We were quite confident through the summer months that everything was on track for the event to take place and, just based on the structure of the event, social distancing wasn’t the issue – that, specifically, was never going to be an issue,” McHugh continued.

“Because it’s an individual sport, you’re on your tractor and you have a plot there that’s approximately 15m or 16m wide by about 80m or 90m long and that’s your space to work in throughout the day.

We just felt that given the changes in the statistics on Covid-19 in the last number of weeks, bringing people from all over the country would not feel – nor would it be – the right to do.

“Ploughing people all over the country have been touched by the virus in some way. We certainly would not want to cause any potential risk whatsoever and, no matter how careful we would be, it is still an event with a number of people.

“No matter what way we dealt with this, we were talking in the region of 150 to 200 people attending, even with limited activity taking place – even just gathering that number of people; it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

McHugh added that, for example, if the event was to have taken place in July, it “may have been okay”.

In 89 years, the National Ploughing Championship has only ever been cancelled once before – in 2001, due to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

That time, only two senior classes were held, but this time there will be six of 21 senior competitions taking place, according to McHugh. However, they have been postponed from the original dates of September 15 to 17, instead taking place on October 6 to 8.

“There was a lot of excitement up until now that the event was going to be going ahead,” she continued.

It was just a little bit of a light at the end of this quite dark tunnel.

“For what we had hoped to go ahead, we had worked quite hard on explaining to competitors that there were to be no spectators and that no family members could come and see them take part; but that we would take as much footage as we could to show people outside of the event what was going on.

“Competitors were very accepting of that and they just wanted to be able to have their day out.”

‘It is a celebration of rural Ireland’

Alongside attendees that are ploughing and machinery enthusiasts, the venue in Co. Carlow required (last year) not only the 180ac for ploughing; but also 100ac for trade stands and exhibition space and a demonstration area of approximately 25ac for anyone and everyone to attend the “celebration of rural Ireland”, as McHugh describes it.

“People love to be part of the statistics that go each year,” she said.

For those who do compete, “it’s a real art” according to McHugh, who said that “it’s a sport where it’s never reached its final destination – every ploughman is constantly developing and modifying their plough to make it better”.

Average economic impact of €45 million

The financial loss this year from the cancellation is significant. €45 million is the average economic impact of the annual event.

“There’s also another aspect – a huge amount of temporary workers are hired for the weeks before and during the three-day event. The loss is great, especially on top of what has already been an extremely challenging year for people, the local economy and further afield.”

Is it too early and too uncertain a time to look towards 2021? McHugh says: “We are absolutely allowed to hope for better for next year.”