GROUND RULES: Blountsville's Plow Judge Keeps 'Em Straight
By Darryal Ray
Joseph Bullard is facing the east end of a westbound mule, trailing behind plowing contestant Mike Flemming and his faithful steed Kate.
|A roofer by trade, Joseph Bullard of Blountsville says a good plower makes certain the furrows are straight by ensuring that the "headland" is straight. |
As Flemming wrestles the plow, Bullard occasionally stops along the 500-foot furrow, pulls out a tape measure and stretches it to the bottom of the freshly turned row -- eight inches. It's just the right depth for Flemming's 16-inch walking plow, and good enough that Bullard awards him 10 points, the most possible.
Before Flemming is finished plowing five rows, Bullard will judge him on everything from "straightness of furrow" to "cleanliness of sidewall of furrow" to "teamstership and sportsmanship."
"In competition, you get down to the fine print," Bullard said just minutes after awarding Flemming and Kate the blue ribbon in the Walking Plow Division of the 2010 Alabama State Horse and Mule Plowing Contest at Dothan's Landmark Park during its recent Spring Farm Day celebration.
After a decade of judging plowing competitions in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, Texas and Ohio, Bullard knows the "fine print" the way a plowboy knows the backside of his favorite mule.
"If you're just plowing to make a living, it doesn't have to be perfect as long as the work gets done -- of course you want it done right," said Bullard. "But the people who plow in competitions, they'll measure out perfectly squared plots as if they were putting down a foundation for a home. Then, depending on whether they're plowing with a 12- or 14- or 16-inch plow, they'll measure out their furrows so that they plow right to the edge."
"A man may put in five to six hours just getting his plot ready to plow before he ever walks his horse or mule into it," Bullard added. "He'll have a starting point and a stopping point, and when they get through with their first line, it looks like you've pulled a (chalk) line down it. That's how close they get it."
One of 10 kids who worked the fields of his family's farm, Bullard was plowing by age 6. "Plowing wasn't a bit fun back then. We all hated it," Bullard said. "I always said that when I got grown, 'I ain't ever going to own a farm.'"
Of course, Bullard ate those words and now owns a farm near Blountsville where he keeps more than 40 Percheron draft horses, including a two-time world champion. When he isn't running Joseph Bullard Roofing Co., he's either judging a plowing contest or relaxing at the occasional "fun day plowings" in the Nectar community.
It was at one of those community plowings in 2000 where two men first approached him from the U.S. Plowing Championships held annually in Dayton, Ohio. After a couple of phone calls, Bullard reluctantly agreed to become a judge.
"The first thing I judged was the Ohio State Plowing Contest," he says, adding that it drew 36 teams and was a good warm-up for his next assignment -- the 42-team national championship.
Most contestants, Bullard said, are older men who grew up plowing. "But some of their kids have come right along and stepped up. They never did any farming, but they've seen their dad competition plow, and they want to competition plow."
It's not a males-only sport, however. At Landmark Park's contest, Barbara Williams, a 71-year-old security guard from Florida, took third place in the Walking Plow Division, although it was her first time ever to plow. Last year, Hannah Flowers, a 14-year-old girl from Blackville, S.C., competed and placed.
"A good plower has a lot of patience," said Bullard. "You've got to talk easy to these horses and mules. If you ever raise your voice, they'll get mad at you and know they can control your plowing. If you get mad, it's best to stop them, give them a break, pet 'em, whatever they want to do because they are about 90 percent of how well you'll do. If that horse (or mule) wobbles, then you've got a wobble in your plowing."
It hardly rivals the precision agriculture of today's high-tech tractors, but the competition can become a game of inches.
Among the criteria used in judging is the headland, a term used to describe the starting point on a furrow.
"If that headland isn't straight, you're plowing isn't going to be straight," said Bullard. "A good plower can correct little mistakes as he goes along ... it's like anything else. When you get right down to the finals, you've got to be a good plower to even get there, and when you get to that point, you're going to see some sure 'nough good plowers. They'll start talking to those horses before they get up to the headland, and those horses will be listening. When the point of that plow gets to that line, the horses are going so slow that they can stop right on that line."
The teamwork between man-and-beast can be a sight to behold with the seldom-used plow lines draped over the plower's shoulder as the horse or mule moves along as if being mysteriously driven.
"They'll talk to their horses or mules just like you and I are talking," Bullard marveled. "They'll start out and say, 'we need to go easy,' and they'll tell those horses, 'easy, easy, easy' and they'll slow them down so much that you can hardly see them even putting their foot down -- almost like they're about to step on something hot. They listen that well. Just before the plow point gets to the line, they'll ask them to step up a step or they'll ask them to just lean forwards and every time they do it, they'll tell them 'thank you.' They tell these horses 'thank you' or they'll say, 'please.' That's how close a competition we've got."
While it hinges on the horse or mule to make the furrows straight, it falls on judges like Bullard to keep the contestants in line.
"Once you judge several times, you get to know the people," Bullard said. "That makes you more picky. You hunt harder for a mistake than you would if you didn't know them. ... You may know them all and feel like you're everyone of them's buddy, but there's a line there where you say, 'He may be my best buddy, but he didn't do the best plowing here today.'"
That really hit home a few years ago when Bullard disqualified his best friend at the U.S. Plowing Championships after the friend's partner broke the rules by adjusting the plow.
"His buddy was back there helping him adjust the plow and I saw it," Bullard said. "I hollered and told him, 'You can't touch that plow!' He said, 'Oh yeah, I forgot.' All these other people who have already plowed are sitting there watching and heard him get the warning. A little bit later, here he goes again, adjusting his plow. The buddy who's supposed to be holding the horse has a wrench and is back there helping him work on it. So I just walk over there and say, 'Boys, you can go ahead and plow, but I'm going to put right here on this judging sheet 'disqualified' and I showed it to them. They said, 'Joe, I can't blame you -- we knew better. We can't blame you.' They didn't do it to cheat -- they just honestly forgot. After the competition was over, he told me, 'You did exactly the right thing. We went over the rules, we knew we weren't supposed to do it and I got what I deserved.'"