A Passion for Plowing

Nostalgic for a vintage tractor? Old-school farming endures at Plow Days.

(Photography by David B. Hollingsworth)

The art of plowing has faded from rural American life, but for those who appreciate old-school farming, the sight of waves of soil folding over the blades of a plow as it carves precise furrows across a fresh field is a thing of beauty.

“I love to turn dirt, to make it look pretty,” says Bill “Red Bibs” Jennings, a Portsmouth native and farmer who plows competitively all over the country. In these contests, drivers plow half-acre plots without the help of GPS mapping. They’re judged on the alignment of their furrows and the depth and quality of specified cuts.

“It takes patience and concentration. And if you don’t have them,” Jennings notes, “you’d better find them.” Recognized by his signature red-bib overalls, Jennings is also a regular at Plow Days events, where participants plow for pleasure and the nostalgia of vintage tractors lives on.

Long popular in the Midwest and Deep South, Plow Days are newer to Virginia, where a cadre of supporters launched the annual Virginia Beach event—coming this year on Nov. 6.

(Photography by David B. Hollingsworth)

“Plowing was popular in farming until the early 1980s,” says Ashton Lewis, Sr., who co-founded the event with his friend Bonney Bright in 2019. Farm nostalgia is a big part of its appeal. Why did plowing fade from the rural landscape? Lewis cites the high cost of fueling a tractor as it churns acres of farmland, “it takes a lot of power.” Modern growers have traded traditional plowing for a method that “fluffs the dirt up rather than churning it,” he explains.

Plow Days are good fun, attracting a crowd that ranges from working farmers to families eager to give their children a glimpse of farming as it once was. The Virginia Beach event attracts seagulls, too, lured by the feast turned up from the soil.

Lewis, who is descended from generations of farmers, was inspired to launch the inaugural Virginia Beach Plow Days event after he and Bright visited a similar heritage farming event in Shawsboro, North Carolina back in 2016.

Once home, Lewis hauled his old John Deere 4020 with a four-bottom plow out of the weeds and began the painstaking process of restoring it. For those with farming in their blood, nothing excites like a vintage tractor. The John Deere had seen Lewis through years of plowing, beginning in high school. And although he’d gone on to graduate from Randolph-Macon College and build a successful career in his family’s automobile dealerships, Lewis’ fascination with farming has never faded.

(Photography by David B. Hollingsworth)

Bright, too, was moved by the trip. “After being there, I went out and bought one old plow and then another,” he says. “Now I have eight or nine old plows totaling about 68 bottoms.” The business-end of the plow, the bottom is the shovel-shaped part that carves the furrow. A four-bottom plow will leave four furrows in its wake.

Bright went on to host the first Plow Day event on Bonney Bright Farm, founded by his grandfather more than one hundred years ago.

Kent Gardner, president of the Albemarle Antique Power Association, says his group supports Plow Days’ goal of keeping heritage farming methods and machines—which date from 1910 to 1980—fresh in the public’s awareness. At a recent Plow Days event in North Carolina, Gardner arranged for a team of mules and horses pulling a plow to appear, delighting the children there. “Kids love the animals and the smaller garden tractors that they can actually drive,” Gardner says.

Much as Bright and Lewis still love plowing, neither does much of it on Plow Days. They’re too busy talking to visitors. “Plow days are a lot of fun,” Bright says. “We talk plows and plowing, and we know that when you are on a plow your mind gets away from everything else.”


This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue.

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