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Ploughing on with a long-standing tradition

The beginning of the Wairarapa ploughing match on Sunday. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

Ploughing transformed New Zealand’s agricultural industry and it lives on today as one of the country’s oldest sports and traditions. 

There is a combination of precision and passion in play during any ploughing match.

Beckie Wilson

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As Opaki farmer Peter Noaro jumped down off his tractor, he admitted, “I’ve never been able to do the crown right”.

And so began an education in the ways of ploughing.

The first step in a ploughing match is to create an “opening split”, the first row before ploughing the crown, where the soil is turned into the centre.

At last Sunday’s annual Wairarapa ploughing match in Gladstone. the Noaro brothers, Peter and Jack, ploughed in lots side-by-side in their matching red McCormick Engineering Standard tractors

Peter’s was a W4 model, slightly smaller than his brother, Jack’s, W6 model.

Despite the lack of confidence, Peter came first place in the Open Vintage category on Sunday, with a total of 103.5 points.

As a former potato farmer just north of Masterton, ploughing is an important part of

Peter Noaro on his McCormick-Deering Standard W4 tractor. PHOTO/BECKIE WILSON

everyday life.

Preparing the soil for planting was crucial to make a living off the crop, he said.

But for the past two decades, ploughing has also been a hobby for Peter, who sticks to competing at a local level.

With the match underway behind him, Alan Wilson looked towards the horizon as he attempted to count the years, maybe even decades, that he has been treasurer of the Wairarapa Ploughing Match Association.

Sporting a name badge and a ploughing-branded hat, his passion for the sport was more easily defined than the precise time he had served with the association.

“Someone said it was about 40 years,” he said.

Wilson, and his wife, Barbara, are a Wairarapa ploughing power couple, with Barbara having held the secretary role since 2005.

Peter Noaro, of Opaki, measuring the soil depth on Sunday. PHOTO/BECKIE WILSON

The former Gladstone farmer has been a bus driver for Masterton-based Tranzit company for the past 20 years — “I really enjoy it.”

He was pleased with the turn-out of 15 competitors on Sunday, especially after last year’s match was called off.

“It poured the night before – it got canned,” he said.

Last Sunday’s weather was more favourable with the warm breeze, and no sign of rain.

Wilson used to compete, and even represented the region in nationals.

He remembered when he “caught the bug” of ploughing at about the age of 16.

“My father, he didn’t compete, but he dragged me along to a ploughing match one day and I thought ‘I could do as good as that’.”

Wilson said the annual Wairarapa match was not just about competing but was also a time to share knowledge and expertise, and enjoy a good day out.

Years ago, when the association was searching for a paddock on which to hold the yearly match, the late Mick Rayner offered up a piece of the family property.

“It’s clay-based, a good paddock too,” Wilson said.

From 1994 to 2006, matches were held at Rayner’s property.

He died in July this year and his grandson, Andrew Rayner, now runs the farm.

Perfection is key, says judge

Judge Campbell Agnew has never given 10 points to a fellow ploughman when it comes to straightness of a ploughed lot.

With his well-trained eye, Agnew can make out the slightest curve even if it appears to be straight to the rookie observer.

Judging is a hobby these days for the apple grower from Havelock North.

But he did make it to nationals a few times. “I did okay, and not so okay,” he said.

While he misses competing, he travels the country judging at regional matches.

“We’re an enthusiastic bunch,” he said.

Agnew was one of eight judges on Sunday assessing each ploughed lot against strict criteria, including straightness, weed control – what grass is visible, the ‘ins and outs’ – the neatness of the grass edge, and the general appearance.

“The key is to get it perfect,” he said, which would be a score of 280.

But Agnew said with the meticulous judging, the winner typically ends up with a total between 190 and 210 points.

Everly Hunt examines his tractor’s broken arm which ultimately forced him out of the competition. PHOTO/BECKIE WILSON

Not long into the ploughing match, Everly Hunt was spotted at the smoko tent while his fellow ploughmen charged on.

His bright red overalls were a beacon of concern.

“It’s a bugger,” he said.

This is his fifth decade of competing and he had never before had a breakdown.

But this year the Manawatu local had abandoned his Massey Fergusson 1956 tractor with a “broken arm”, forcing him to call it quits for the afternoon.

Hunt is no stranger to competing having been to the New Zealand nationals nine times – he’s won once.

That was at Lincoln, near Christchurch, in 1974.

Since then, Hunt has explored the world representing New Zealand at the world championships in Finland in 1974, Northern Ireland in 1979, Austria in 1982 and finally in Spain in 1992.

Spectator and the veteran

These days, Carrington farmer, Peter Batchelor, takes more of a back-seat role at local ploughing matches.

He first started competing in the 1950s before turning to judging in the 80s, but “now it’s more coming along to support the others”, he said.

His father had a dairy and cropping farm in Carrington.

They would plough a small section of the farm, about five acres, for the crops.

Batchelor acted as a watchful eye over the ploughmen, as he sat next to a waving green flag.

Wairarapa Ploughing Match Association president Gavin Jones. PHOTO/BECKIE WILSON

On Sunday, he was in charge of the start and finishing flags: red for stop, amber for a warning of change, and green to start or continue ploughing.

Years ago, there were concerns that the sport was dying out when only three ploughmen would turn up for an event, Batchelor said.

“It got to a stage that there might not be enough for an event,” he said.

He would like to see new blood coming through, but he was pleased to see the 15 entrants this year.

Kelly Jones enjoys supporting her husband Gavin, the association’s president, at these events.

Jones was skeptical when she attended her first match about six years ago.

“First I thought this would be boring, but I really enjoy it,” she said.

It was a passionate sport where expertise and wisdom were passed on from those more experienced, she said.

Kelly noted there were not many women in Sunday’s match – a two-woman team ploughed a single furrow behind two Clydesdale horses.

Tirau’s Angela Taylor was also competing, having taken part in this year’s national champs in Southland.

Kelly has started to learn the tricks of the trade through observation, but she doesn’t have any plans of entering.

Back to where it began

The first Wairarapa ploughing match dates back to 1875, with an event held at Tauherenikau, which cost five shillings to enter.

But ploughing in New Zealand goes back further, to the very beginnings of European settlement.

On May 3, 1820, missionary, the Reverend John Butler walked behind a team of six bullocks in Keri Keri, drawing a plough.

He recorded the first use of an agricultural plough in the country.

On that historic day, Butler wrote in his dairy: “I trust that this auspicious day will be remembered with gratitude and its anniversary kept by ages yet unknown.”

And so it has transpired.

The Silver Plough Trophy at the New Zealand Championships is an exact replica of the plough Butler used, which is on display at the Old Colonist’s Museum in North Auckland.

When Wairarapa’s Ploughing Match Committee was formed in 1910, it hosted its first match in June at the Glenmorven property near Greytown.

Match locations alternated across the region each year.

Special prizes during matches included: one guinea for the horse showing most care and attention, and a 12-month delivery of the Wairarapa Daily News for the horse showing best management.

The 1916 match was cancelled as the men who typically entered were on the frontline during World War One.

No further matches were held until after the end of the second world war in 1945.

In 1953, the Wairarapa Ploughing Match Association was formed, and continues to this day.

Wairarapa has hosted two national finals, one in Masterton in 1969, and another in 1977 at Mick Rayner’s property in Carterton.


Judges Joe Percy, left, and Colin Miller. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

Non Qualifying
1st Malcolm Taylor
2nd Kelvin Stokes
3rd Angela Taylor

New Zealand Vintage Qualifying
1st  Paul Houghton
2nd Ian Cocker
3rd Ian McSporran

Open Vintage
1st Peter Noaro
2nd John Brookie
3rd Stan Wilton

1st Kylie/Cloe Northcott
2nd Fred Pilling

This article is part of the rural series, ‘Beckie’s Block’, in each Thursday edition. 

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