The Ploughing is a phenomenal success story but has it outgrown its roots?

Aoife Killeen, Aoibheann o'loughlin, Izzy Coffey, Robin O'Neill, Kathlyn O'Halloran and Laura Cramody, from Clare at the ploughing championships at Screggan, Co. Offaly. Pic credit; Damien Eagers.
Aoife Killeen, Aoibheann o'loughlin, Izzy Coffey, Robin O'Neill, Kathlyn O'Halloran and Laura Cramody, from Clare at the ploughing championships at Screggan, Co. Offaly. Pic credit; Damien Eagers.
Mike Brady

Mike Brady

As if we needed any reminding that 2018 will certainly be remembered as a year where the weather caused havoc at the National Ploughing Championships, leading to the belated closure of Wednesday and the addition of Friday to the traditional three-day event.

The success of the National Ploughing Championships is nothing short of spectacular. It has grown from humble beginnings 87 years ago into the largest outdoor event in Europe.

The foresight and strong leadership of the National Ploughing Association (NPA) by Anna-May McHugh and her army of volunteers is a credit to the agricultural industry. It is a great example of the enterprise and innovation that exists in rural Ireland.

The result of this exceptional growth is that the event has far outgrown its roots, aptly defined in one publication as follows: “The National Ploughing Championships is now no longer just for ploughing or machinery enthusiasts — the modern event now features something for just about every member of the community. These include a Tented Trade Village, a Food Fair, Craft Village, Livestock, Forestry, Education, Lifestyle, Financial Services, Bio Energy and Agri Service.’”

The heart of the event is still dominated by the large agribusiness stands, but increasingly there are stands and exhibits with little or no connection to agriculture.

Every media outlet has a presence — TV, radio, print and online.

There is wall to wall coverage of the event as a sense of farming and agriculture enters the psyche of the nation.

There are 139,000 farmers with Basic Payment Scheme Applications (BPS) in the country but there were 240,500 people at the ploughing in 2018. Every farmer does not attend, so who does go to the ploughing and why do they attend?

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Clearly lots of farmers still attend the event. For most it’s an escape from the farm for a single day even if that involves the traditional early start, loading up the car with the children who want a day off school, ensuring there is suitable attire for all weather and setting off in a race to beat the traffic.

For others, it’s a hotel or B&B stay for a few days, to relax, have a few beers and a bit of fun — the non-horsey man’s Listowel. 

Farmers are well used to early starts but probably not as patient in traffic as their city cousins. This was exacerbated this year with people cooped up in their cars from early morning waiting for the gates to open on the windy Wednesday, a frustrating day for all.

The first important task of the day after parking the car is to remember precisely where you parked it; otherwise finding it on your return after a long day may prove more than a little embarrassing.

I noticed a number of modern tech savvy farmers taking a picture of the car park number with their smart phones! 

For most farmers it’s a family day out and an opportunity to browse the stands and see what takes their fancy.

Others have specific meetings planned with machinery dealers, banks or at the Department of Agriculture Food and Marine stand. The children, on the other hand, get a hold of a strong plastic bag or two early on and proceed to see who can gather the most freebies, readily available on most stands.


The majority of attendees at the ploughing nowadays are non-farmers. Bus-loads of school children, active retirement groups, tourists and non-farming families from all corners of the country make the journey to see what goes on and what all the fuss is about. Some get the attire correct and blend in, others stick out like a sore thumb.

I often wonder what impression emanates from the Ploughing of the farming community and agriculture in general? It is certainly a great platform to showcase our industry.       

Exhibitors & volunteers

The forgotten attendees at the ploughing are the exhibitors and volunteers. Anybody who has manned a stand for a few days at the Ploughing knows it certainly is not fun, it is simply hard work. The logistics and cost of erecting a stand are not for the faint-hearted, especially those who are not selling.

The sheer volume of people at the event challenges the people skills of all on stands.

The army of NPA volunteers give generously of their time and are a vital cog to the running of the event. 

Every event has a life-span and some would say the Ploughing has peaked in its present format.

The NPA quoted attendance numbers have dropped from 291,500 in 2017 to 240,700 this year, so perhaps this is correct.

The event is a great opportunity to showcase the best our industry has to offer but do we make the best use of this opportunity, and if not, what should we do?

 An idea would be for the industry to come together to make a showcase of Irish agriculture and food the centre -piece exhibit of the Ploughing experience.

Look at the extravagant production shows before big sporting occasions. We see what a difference theatre groups can make to the entertainment value of the St Patrick’s parade or New Year’s Eve celebrations.

An annual themed message would provide a new focus and take the pressure off some of the weary exhibitors.

The stand and exhibits could be the entourage instead of being the centrepiece.

It could be a win, win solution for the NPA and the industry and could take this great event to an even higher level.

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