There’s Nothing Like the Outdoor Shows

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Verner, Ontario is too small to be counted by Census Canada. The municipality of West Nipissing, of which it is a part, has a population of 14,364 (but almost half of those live in Sturgeon Falls, 16 km west on highway 17). A farming centre, it has a co-op, an equipment dealer, and a church; recently, it also had 81, 517 visitors.

What brought all these people to this small northern Ontario place was the International Plowing Match (IPM). The IPM is the biggest annual event for farm and rural people in Ontario, according to retired farmers Ron & Janice Hewitt of Kincardine, but if you are an urban Ontarian chances are it’s the biggest thing you’ve never heard of. There are indoor events, like Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair, but, according to Ron, “there’s nothing like the outdoor shows.”

Organized plowing matches go back to the early 1800s in Ontario, when they were organized by the Agricultural Society of Upper Canada. In 1846 a provincial competition, pitting county-level winners against each other, was launched. After going into decline in the late 19th century, the matches were revived by the formation of the Ontario Plowman’s Association which began holding annual matches in 1913.[1] Though a few years were missed during the First and Second World Wars, the IPM has been held every year since. This year’s IPM started to take shape in Verner towards the end of August, when farmer Daniel Olivier harvested his crop of hay and then opened 1,000 acres of his land to a team from Ontario Hydro, who proceeded to string up 20 km of electricity lines. Olivier’s farm was transformed into a “tented city” (the name for the exhibition area of the IPM), an RV Park containing 1,000 sites, and grounds for the plowing competitions.[2]

Part of the Tented City. Photo by the Author.

The IPM is put on every year by the Plowman’s Association of Ontario. The tented city features music, food (Chez Guy has been feeding people at the IPM for 36 years), crafts, historical displays, and lots of heavy equipment.

Wooden Ringer Washing Machine in the Historical Displays. Photo by the author.

Heavyweight political figures are an annual feature: traditionally, the Ontario legislature shuts down so politicians can attend and pander to rural people, and this year NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Premier Doug Ford (dressed down in a golf shirt) attended, bearing promises of $6.5 million in funding for tile drainage installation and other local rural development projects. The Prime Minister, presumably due to the election going on at the time, did not attend, but Jagmeet Singh and the NDP campaign showed up and put on a barbecue for their supporters in the RV Park. The Canadian Cowgirls precision riding team was there, as was Amber Marshall of the CBC series “Heartland.” Teams arrived to engage in horse, tractor, and antique tractor (with drag plows and mounted plows) plowing matches.

Janice and Ron attend every year. This year I went with them, along with their daughter (and my friend) Debbie and her kids and in-laws. The day started with a ride on a hay wagon from the parking lot into the tented city.

The Author and his Friend Dan on the Hay Wagon. Photo used by permission.

Janice explains that they go most years, but the reasons why have changed. When they were actively farming, the point was to check out the prices on equipment and maybe buy some, and see what’s new.

Displays and Sales of Farm Equipment are a Big Part of the Show. Photo by the author.

This still goes on: we saw one of Ron and Janice’s family members who explained that he was going to a presentation on growing cannabis. Now, Janice and Ron go most years because it’s familiar and they enjoy spending time with a rural crowd. Before they went for 1-2 days and hurried back each night to do daily chores on their farm; now they stay for the whole week.

The Canadian Cowgirls Show is Equal Parts Riding and Patriotism. Photo by the Author.

We went to see the Canadian Cowgirls, who put on a show that was equal parts precision riding and patriotism. Tied together, as the announcer explained, by love of family, nation, and horses, the Cowgirls see themselves as “ambassadors for our great nation,” a nation which they spoke of in terms of freedom and ethnic and regional diversity. They were “flying the flag for you,” they proclaimed. We also attended the various displays designed as outreach and education for urban folk. These often put an emphasis on the environmentally friendly practices of Ontario farms.

Displays For Urban People Often Stressed the Environmentally Friendly Nature of Modern Farming. Photo by the Author.

Other displays taught kids about the living things on the farm; kids, as well as the odd agricultural historian, were invited to practice milking on a mock-up of a dairy cow.

The Author Tries His Hand at “Milking”. Photo used by permission.

For Ron, this is one of the most important parts of the IPM. Rural communities are so small, he explained, so few people live there. But at the IPM we saw groups of school kids bussed in from North Bay and other neighbouring communities, and Ron thought it was important that they were at a place where they could see where their food came from.

I asked my friend Debbie, who had taken a day off work to attend, why she came to the IPM. She offered several reasons. She went most years when she was growing up, so it was a familiar thing. This year’s show was nearby, and offered a chance to spend time with her family. She also wanted her girls to learn about the farm life that she had grown up with and that they did not experience growing up in North Bay. The IPM offers a particular forward-facing image of farming in the displays aimed at urban people, and Janice noted that one of the things they liked about going was the chance to chat with and maybe educate urban people. “We kind of take farming for granted,” one visitor said to the North Bay Nugget, “but from the people I’ve talked to, the farmers, I get a real idea of what’s involved.”[3] Ultimately, though, the IPM is not for urban people. In a country that not that long ago was mostly rural, it is something special: a major event by and for rural people.

[1] Catherine Anne Wilson, “A Manly Art: Plowing, Plowing Matches, and Rural Masculinity in Ontario, 1800-1930,” Canadian Historical Review 95(2) (2014): 163-4.
[2] PJ Wilson, “Small town cooking up an economic ‘legacy’: Verner hopes to duplicate Earlton’s success with International Plowing Match and Rural Expo,” North Bay Nugget, July 17, 2019; Official IPM Show Guide 2019, Better Farming, 2019, 22.
[3] PJ Wilson, “‘We Kind of Take Farming for Granted’,” North Bay Nugget, September 18, 2019.
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Jamie Murton is a Professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University. His research focuses on the environmental history of food and agriculture, and particularly of subsistence production and its relationship to capitalist markets for food. Canadians and Their Natural Environment: A History is out now from Oxford University Press.

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