For those who will be present at the 90th year of the National Ploughing Championships in September it may seem somewhat surreal to be there without the 100,000 plus daily visitors to the event. Or will it?

This year the actual ploughing championships will take place in Ratheniska, Co Laois, on September 15-17 but it will be behind closed doors or gates due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

For those involved in the actual ploughing, their primary focus will again be on their plough and whatever power source they are using.

The competitors parade will seem eeringly quiet this year towards the same parade in 2019. \ Philip Doyle

This year was to be a special one with the World Ploughing event set to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the national event, along with a number of other events organised to celebrate the special occasion. But alas they are not to be.

The World Ploughing Championships has been cancelled and it is now scheduled to take place in Russia in 2022. Indeed, it was also scheduled for Russia in 2020 but obviously postponed due to the COVID restrictions and was initially rescheduled for the first half of 2021.

Action from the National Ploughing Championships in Fenagh, in 2019. \ Donal O'Leary

Ireland was to host the actual 2021 event so there would have been two world events in the same calendar year.

Ploughing 2021

But what will actually be involved in a ploughing event that has become so synonymous with people and trade stands? In the closing days of August, I asked that exact question to Anna Marie McHugh, who is assistant managing director of the National Ploughing Association and also the general secretary of the World Ploughing Organisation.

“From an NPA perspective, the ploughing is paramount. The event still belongs to the ploughmen and ploughwomen who participate in the very many championship events and who are the heart and soul of the association,” Anna Marie replied.

Anna Marie McHugh

But things will be different this year, she said, because they had to make the call some months ago to give potential exhibitors and visitors certainty as to what was happening. And given the uncertainty around COVID-19 regulations, the only option at the time was to run the ploughing competitions without the stands and visitors. But she was very insistent that the NPA wants them back when the situation permits.

Indeed, given the way restrictions are being lifted currently, it might have been possible to have had a level of attendance but who was to know that. The decision was made to do what is being done and everyone can look forward to the 2022 event, which is due to take place in Ratheniska on 20, 21 and 22 September.

As of now, Anna Marie said there is nothing in particular planned for the event, other than to welcome everyone back to the “annual festival”.

World ploughing

The World Ploughing Championships 2021 has been cancelled and it is now scheduled to take place in Russia in 2022. Indeed, it was also scheduled for Russia in 2020 but obviously postponed due to the COVID-19 restrictions and was initially rescheduled for the first half of 2021. Ireland was to host the actual 2021 event so there would have been two world events in the same calendar year.

This year's ploughing event will not have the endless isles of trade stands.

Having lost the hosting of the World Ploughing Championships in 2021, Anna Marie said the NPA has put in a bid to host the world ploughing event in 2023. While the world event organisers have already decided on the host country locations out to 2037, Anna Marie felt that the NPA case received a favourable hearing but a swop would be necessary to help make this happen. A decision on this is due to be made by 27 September next and if Ireland is granted the opportunity to host the event, Anna Marie said it will take place in Ratheniska. So now you also know the location for the ploughing championships in 2023.

Making 2021 work

Planning for a full event in 2021 began following last year’s cancellation. Up to a few months ago that involved the full trade stands area and full attendance. However, uncertainty over COVID-19 restrictions meant that a decision had to be made to cancel the trade stands and visitor attendance in the interests of public health so then planning had to begin for a different event which is very much at the heart of the association – the ploughing itself.

All of the usual ploughing competitions will take place over the three days, but without spectators. \ Donal O'Leary

Asked if the smaller event was easier or more difficult to organise, Anna Marie stated that up a few months ago they were organising for a full event with all the effort and stress that entailed. Then it was back to the drawing board with a new set of plans for far fewer people. Anna Marie emphasised that this year’s event is taking place behind closed doors and the public are not allowed entry. Asked what this will actually mean in terms of numbers, she stated that they are still working within public guidelines but, given the space and outdoor nature of the event, they will still have between 1,000 and 1,200 people there each day comprising of judges, competitors, stewards, supervisors, organisers, etc.

Dan Donnelly from Wexford competing at the championships in Fenagh in 2019. \ Donal O'Leary

This event, without the trade stands and public, will run at a substantial loss on top of last year’s non-event and the storm issue of 2018. “But these are the rainy days we were saving for and we [NPA] have to carry these costs out of reserves to keep the show on the road,” Anna Marie said.

This year’s ploughing event will host all the normal competitions that would take please in an ordinary year – tractor, vintage and horse ploughing with different ages and categories. It will be a special occasion in many ways for the competitors as they will be the total focus of the event.

“We are sorry that we cannot have the machinery exhibitors and the general public at the event this year but we really look forward to giving people their day out next year”, Anna Marie stated.

Promote rural Ireland

One of the important things that the ploughing does is provide a shop window for the very many small rural businesses engaged in the provision of a range of services to agriculture in Ireland. These people are very important to the event and the ploughing is important for them, Anna Marie said. “We really want to get back to our traditional event and we want to get it going again for all our patrons.”

Asked if the experiences of 2020 and 2021 might bring changes to future events, the quick reply was “no”. The event has evolved to be what those who attend have made it be and this type of evolution will continue. It will be driven by the exhibitors and the people who attend.

Anna Marie said the NPA had received very many messages of support from both exhibitors and people who attend annually. These message state that they look forward to returning to the event next year. “Did we really appreciate what we had – the Ploughing just seemed to happen every year and we didn’t have to dwell on the significance of every single event. We just got on with the job of organising it because it is so important to so many people. That’s what we do and that’s what we will continue to do,” Anna Marie stated.

The ploughing itself will be the focus of all activity at this year's Ploughing. \ Donal O'Leary

Perhaps there will be a greater appreciation of how “special” the event is next time, even if people do not realise the amount of work involved in the lead in.

Ploughing 2022

Asked if there were any special plans to celebrate the return to the Ploughing in Ratheniska in 2022, the reply was: “The single big plan for now is to make it happen and hopefully we will get that done. That is what everyone wants.”

There will always be new challenges to accommodate or overcome. New rules that govern what farmers can and cannot do influence ploughing activity and the NPA hopes that new rules will accommodate the holding of ploughing championships up and down the country. Brexit will cause some additional hassle for some exhibitors but hopefully all these issues relating to the coming and going of machinery that has driven on or worked on soil can be overcome with sensible conversation and instruction.

Beyond 2022

Farming people will be aware of the bigger crowds at recent events and in particular the increasing numbers of attendees that are not from farming stock. I asked Anna Marie if she saw that trend continuing and if she would even conceive that the event would morph into a consumer rather than a farmer event?

Again, the quick answer was “no”. “We are delighted to have non-farming visitors present to see first-hand the agricultural equipment and activity that makes Irish agriculture and rural life work but farming is our audience, it is our ethos,” she responded.

“The event is organised to accommodate our exhibitors from the agricultural arena and everything associated with rural Ireland and that will remain our intention going forward.”

Ploughing 2021

In recognition of the fact that the public cannot attend this year and that very many people have a direct interest in either ploughing competitions or the progress of a neighbour or friend, we in the Irish Farmers Journal will report live from the ploughing fields on day two and three of the event. So for those who want to keep tabs on the quality of work their man or woman is doing, you can catch the latest updates on social media and

We will bring you comments from those who are ploughing, the judges, organisers, the results and report on some of the less common things that one might see at the event.

NPA comments

It is important to remember that this event is primarily about promoting the art of ploughing and this will always be at the heart of the National Ploughing Association events – it is what our association was founded to do 90 years ago.

2021 will be a special year for “the ploughing family”, ie those who are involved in ploughing competitions, with no spectators about.

In many ways the 2021 event will be a year of reflection for the National Ploughing Championships – it will bring us back to basics in a way that will be reminiscent of what the event would have been like in the early years – just ploughing.

We still look forward to 2022 with excitement and optimism.