Hats off to the humble plough

John Smith on his vintage tractor which was made in 1917.
John Smith on his vintage tractor which was made in 1917.
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John Smith will be working Overtime next Sunday but that doesn’t mean he’ll be earning anything more for his trouble.

What he will be doing is concentrating hard on getting his lines right on his Overtime tractor, manufactured in 1917, at the 34th Festival of the Plough event just out of Epworth. He’s not only competing, he’s also chairman of the event.

“I intend ploughing with it at the festival when it is 100-years-old in three years’ time. This was the forerunner of the John Deere tractor and my particular model was purchased from Lindholme Farm in Sandtoft. It’s the same as the Waterloo Boy that was made in America.

“During the First World War the tractors were brought over in containers and the Overtime company put them together in a different colour. Mine had stood in the yard at Sandtoft for some 50 years and at one time had a tree growing through its frame.”

Many arable farmers have a soft spot for times gone by, those days before the tractor world became ruled by on-board computers and diagnostics kits to find out why something has gone wrong. That’s why the Festival of the Plough has such appeal.

Ploughing has changed immeasurably in the past century and there are only a small band of purists left in the countryside who keep up with the tradition on their own farms.

John, 81, offered this assessment: “Sixty years ago the smaller tractor such as the grey Fergie or the Standard Fordson could cope with ploughing the land because there was nothing bigger going on. Dependent on the soil you could plough two or three furrows and there was no compaction. Today you have 40 -tonne sugar beet and combine harvesters on the land. Everything has gone bigger and bigger and that compacts the soil so that you need even bigger tackle to subsoil it to loosen it up. I don’t really know whether that has been for the better as the structure of the soil has changed so much due to bigger kit being used.”

John’s son Peter manages the day-to-day running of the family enterprise at Burnham Farm, Low Burnham, less than a mile from where the festival takes place. His interest in owning vintage tractors started when he attended the inaugural Festival of the Plough in 1980.

“I bought a 1940 Internation-al Farmall Model M and trailer plough from a Mr Hamilton in the winter that year and started taking part in the ploughing match at the festival the following year. It had been in a yard in Caistor and had been covered in black tar paint to preserve it. I’d never seen that done before or since but his yard was full of all these tractors painted black. I went back a few years later and bought a 1942 John Deere B three wheeler.”

After restoration work, Peter has won prizes as the best local ploughman and for the best turned out tractor, but these days he leaves the competitive ploughing to his father with the near centennial Overtime as he is the ploughing match organiser, which involves marking out the plots and running the match on the day.

“We still have eight or nine pairs of horses for the horse ploughing match and that’s what the crowds really come to see. The shire horses look majestic in the fields and there are still one or two older visitors who remember when they ruled supreme.

“We try to keep the whole event to traditional farming machinery and we include within that a section for classic tractors from the 60s and 70s.

“There’s also a specific Ferguson class for Fergie tractors and ploughs. The idea behind the festival came from three men John Harris, Ken Chappell and Harold Woolgar and their guiding principle was to make it an enjoyable family and countryside day out of more than just a ploughing match.

“Sadly Harold isn’t well at the moment so our thoughts are with him.”

The Festival of the Plough starts with the blessing of the plough and takes place at High Burnham Farm near Epworth on Sunday, September 21.