Big plowing match comes to Kemptville — but is it a fading tradition?

International Plowing Match
The International Plowing Match is a massive undertaking, with a budget of $1.5 to $2 million, covering an area of almost 500 acres and manned by close to 1,000 volunteers. Photo courtesy of Ontario Plowmen's Association.

It’s North America’s largest outdoor agricultural and rural expo and this year it’s landing in Kemptville, Sept. 20 to 24.  

The five-day International Plowing Match (IPM) is an educational and competitive event that began in 1913 at Sunnybrook Farm, the site of today’s Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. Its economic impact is estimated at $25 million for the hosting community but, with very little young blood coming into the event, it’s in danger of fading into the past, some observers suggest.

“I think the IPM has a lot to offer, but I’m not sure if it will be able to continue into the future; young farmers aren’t interested in taking over the organizing,” said Ellen Biemond of Upper Canada Creamery in Iroquois.

Biemond has an exhibition and retail space already booked at the IPM and is looking forward to the event, where she says she meets feed and seed suppliers and does a lot of networking.  

Certainly, the plowing competitions, often a highlight of the event, seem to be facing a shaky future given the average age of the competitors.

“It tends to be primarily the older generation competing. Probably because in today’s world plowing isn’t as popular as it was back a generation or two ago,” said Harry Bennett, chair of the local IPM organizing committee.

Plowing is a skill that’s honed over many years and competitive plowing is expensive, with travel time and fuel and equipment costs, explained Bennett. Plus, not all farms are suitable for plowing and there are other methods growing in popularity.

“I think it’s inevitable it will slowly die out as the older farmers go,” said Aaron Klink, a farmer in Merrickville. While he and his family enjoy the event whenever they can get to it, they like it more for its nostalgia than its relevance to their own small farm operation.

Biemond thinks it’s still relevant but worries that the new generation of farmers is complacent, while some of the older generation are averse to the changes young farmers want to introduce.

“We’re estimating there’s going to be 20 teams of horses with their handlers competing in horse plowing, I don’t know how much that’s dropped over the years. Not too many young people are into horse plowing, but it’s kind of neat to watch and quite an art, too,” said Bennett.

The IPM is a massive undertaking, with a budget of $1.5 to $2 million, covering an area of almost 500 acres and manned by close to 1,000 volunteers.

“We started organizing in February 2020, but then we had COVID and lockdowns, so it was a bit slow in the beginning,” said Bennett.  “Right now, we’re installing power and water to the tented city exhibitors and the RV park.”

The tented city where exhibitors will set up is a 65-acre area, while the RV park covers about 100 acres.

Held in a different location every year, the IPM has never been held in Kemptville and was last in Leeds and Grenville in 2015.

“This is the first time for the IPM in Grenville County and we’re mostly agricultural,” North Grenville Mayor Nancy Peckford told EOBJ. “We wanted to put North Grenville on the map and we couldn’t think of a better event to showcase the area.”

The IPM will be staged at Kemptville Campus and the lands south of the campus that have been slated by the province for a prison.

“We think this is an opportunity to help the agricultural community realize the potential of that campus. Already, 80 per cent of the existing buildings and greenhouses on Kemptville Campus are occupied. That being said, there’s still a lot of potential for small businesses and agricultural industry within the campus,” said Mayor Peckford.

IPMs are a partnership between a local organizing committee and the Ontario Plowmen’s Association and profits from the event are split evenly between the two. As the host community, the municipality is closely involved with the organizing committee and provides $100,000 in seed money that will be repaid at the conclusion of the event, as well as supports negotiations with the province and the Kemptville Campus.

“So, at the end of the match, the Ontario Plowmen's Association gets 50 per cent and they use that money to continue to stage matches and other events down the road and our 50 per cent that the local committee gets is all donated back into the community,” said Bennett. Traditionally, the funds are allocated to health care or to a charitable organization within the host community.

As is often the case in recent IPMs, the growing focus on experiential tourism means there’ll be a regional showcase set up by the county at this year’s IPM.

“As one of the sponsors of the IPM, we have a space that’s been designated to us and we’ve been working with all 13 municipalities to put a regional showcase together,” said Ann Weir, manager of economic development with Leeds and Grenville.

The showcase will be interactive and informative, according to Weir. A lot of the exhibits will be outdoors in a nod to COVID and this year’s main attraction will be the touch-a-truck area, where firetrucks, snowplows, a Zamboni and more will be on display with visitors invited to get close. The showcase will also feature nature and outdoor recreational facilities and activities in the region — local trails, camping, kayaking and boating – along with other unique features of the region. 

“I’m just getting approval to do food and culinary – some sampling, cooking demonstrations and things like that,” said Weir.

It’s a theme that fits well with the overall focus of the IPM, which will also feature a rodeo and tractor-plowing competition.

“A big portion of the plowing match is educating school kids about where food comes from. So, we have a large — approximately 10 acres — area for education and we’ll have volunteers manning different displays on education in the area,” said Bennett.

The event is deliberately held during the school year, so invitations can be sent to all the schools in the region.

“We’ll probably have 1,500 to 2,000 kids per day coming to the education area and that’s pretty important because I think in today’s world not many kids and not many people live on farms like they did a generation or two ago and it’s a good opportunity to provide education about where food comes from, who produces it, the procedures that go into producing it,” explained Bennett, who is an agronomist by day.

Organizers are ready to implement whatever COVID-related health protocols are required come September, but are generally optimistic that the pandemic has created an appetite for outdoor events.

“We’re conservatively thinking that we’ll have around 60,000 attendees this year,” said Bennett. The last IPM held in Finch, Ont., attracted 80,000 visitors.

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