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International Plowing Match keeps tradition alive in Lynden

Mar 31st, 2012 | Category: Community, Features

71st annual event to be held in Berthusen Park

by Marnie Jones

Each April for 70 years, a group of farmers and horsemen have gathered in Lynden to test the strength of their teams, the skill of their drivers, and the finish of their furrows. On Saturday, April 21, they’ll convene at Berthusen Park for the 71st annual International Plowing Match, showing in seven different classes according to age, gender, and equipment type.

Working a team at the Plowing Match. PHOTO BY MARNIE JONES

Proximity to our Canadian neighbors was an asset to early event organizers, according to Elvina Magill Verduin. Her account of the Plow Match’s history, published on the Northwest Washington Fair website, states that her husband Cornelius “Cornie” Verduin was one of three men who went to Chilliwack, B.C. for guidance on the subject of arranging a match.  “The Canadian Plowing Society gave them valuable assistance,” she writes. Cornie Verduin and his fellow organizers, Jack Elliott and Fred Polinder, were so successful on their first endeavor that they invited their Canadian friends to come again. The International Plowing Match continued thereafter, according to the account, with special classes for Canadians and their distinctive equipment.

While the prevalence of horse-drawn implements has diminished, the Pacific Northwest remains home to a devoted group of plowmen who show up on the third weekend of April each year.

“As much as it’s an event, it’s also become a rite of passage,” said George Bowen, a longtime competitor. He calls the match a nice tradition, pointing out that plowing with horse teams is in danger of being pushed into the history books. “The community identifies with this,” he says.

Now, according to Bowen, the challenge lies in involving the next generation. He says the International Plowing Association is a loose affiliation of farmers and enthusiasts who keep the plowing match alive year after year, and that some competitors now have children who compete. The Northwest Washington Fair sponsors the event.

Like George Bowen, Ray Tjoelker and his wife Gert have been attending plow matches in Lynden for years. Though they’ll miss this year’s match, Tjoelker’s modestly-sized mules, Katy and Patti, have competed alongside the huge draft horse teams for seven years. “I’m thinking I’ll drive down there with my buggy,” Tjoelker said. “I always enjoyed going.”

The plow match was originally held in fields donated by local farmers. After a couple of relocations, the event found a permanent home at Berthusen Park in 2010. Some longstanding policies, still in effect, include free admission, an informal atmosphere, and an April date to promote on-time seeding of crops.

At Berthusen Park, local farmer Greg Smit helps ready the field by mowing in advance with his tractor and comes in after the match to till and seed the freshly plowed field. Later, the cultivated ground will produce feed for Smit’s livestock.

“He’s a really strong supporter,” Bowen said of him.

While many of the farmers who bring teams to the match also show hitches at the Northwest Washington Fair, Bowen emphasized that the draft teams used for plowing differ from the flashy, high-stepping animals seen showing six-in-hand in August. “This is the agrarian side of the equation,” he said. “These are thick, heavy horses. These are horses where you can drop the lines and go fix the equipment.”

Bowen has that kind of trust in his team of black Percherons, Pat and Mike, and will be showing them on April 21. “They’ve been together since they were young colts,” he says of the geldings. “Now they’re 17.”

Spectators are welcome to the event on Saturday, April 21 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit nwwafair.com and click on events. This summer, the Northwest Draft Horse Spectacular will show at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds July 15-16.

Published in the April 2012 edition of Grow Northwest magazine.

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