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Reading farmer, enamored with plowing contest, has opportunity to compete at nationals

Rod Burkard now has the opportunity to compete in August at the national event in Pennsylvania.

Antique tractor and plow
Rod Burkard stands with the Case VAC tractor and antique plow he used to win first place in the Minnesota Plowing Organization's state contest in August 2022.
Photo courtesy of Rod Burkard
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READING — Rod Burkard’s 1945 Case Centennial moldboard 2-bottom, 14-inch plow sits out behind his shop, buried in a snow drift on a crisp January afternoon, but last August, the piece of antique farm machinery propelled Burkard to first place in the Minnesota Plowing Organization’s annual plowing contest near Greenwald.

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To say he was shocked by the results would be accurate.

It was Burkard’s second year competing in the state plowing contest, and the first year was very much a learning opportunity. His 3-bottom, 18-inch moldboard plow was simply too big to create perfectly plowed rows in the eyes of the judges, and his tractor wasn’t really suitable either.

Trophy finish
Rod Burkard, of rural Reading, holds the trophy he received from the Minnesota Plowing Organization's 2022 contest. Behind him is the Case VAC tractor he drove in the competition.
Julie Buntjer / The Globe

Despite the use of less-than-ideal equipment, Burkard ended up with a second place finish at the contest — held that year in Lake Wilson — because three of the competitors in his division couldn’t compete on the second day of the contest and their scores were tossed out.

“I had no idea what kind of conditions they wanted the soil to be in after you plowed it,” Burkard said of the experience. Competing in the plowing contest, though, had long been on his bucket list. “I went over there with the hope of just doing a nice job of plowing. I thought it looked nice, but it wasn’t the kind of plowing they wanted.”

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After the contest, Burkard was encouraged to come back in future years to compete — and with that, was given some advice. He needed a different plow, and a different tractor, and was encouraged to find equipment with which he could compete in the antique class, the easiest of the competitive plowing classes to break into.

“I had an old tractor that qualified, and I searched for an old plow,” he said.

On a quest

The old tractor Burkard owned was a 1947 VAC Case he and his wife purchased in 1976, the year of the U.S. Bicentennial.

The Burkards were living in Bigelow at the time, and the tractor was purchased to ride in several parades in the area. It was the first tractor Burkard had ever purchased.

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“It’s a little on the small side for competitive plowing, but the other old tractor I had was two years too new, so I couldn’t use that,” he said. “(This one) was stuck on the auger for quite a few years and augered a lot of grain for us.”

Burkard’s VAC was the smallest, lowest horsepower tractor used in last August’s contest.

As for the plow, Burkard found the two-bottom, 14-inch piece offered for sale on Craigslist.

“It was sitting in a guy’s lawn and I could tell it had been sitting there for quite a few years,” Burkard shared. “He said he was tired of looking at it.

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Plowing champion
Rod Burkard found his 2-bottom, 14-inch moldboard plow through Craigslist. It had long been used by the previous owner as a lawn ornament, and was in surprisingly good shape.
Photo courtesy of Rod Burkard

“I brought it home, fixed it up, shined it up and started plowing. It was in pretty darn good shape,” he added.

The plow isn’t as small as most used in competitive plowing, Burkard said, noting that most competitors pull a 2-bottom, 12-inch moldboard plow.

“Because of the finish they’re after, the smaller the plow … the better off you are,” he said.

The competition considers straightness of plowing, levelness of the soil, and even if the plow goes into and comes out of the soil parallel to its previous round at both ends of the field.

Practice or play?

Burkard grew up near St. Kilian, the son of farmers. After high school, he attended Canby Vo-Tech for diesel mechanics, and found a job with Strom Power and Equipment, a Case dealership in Worthington.

In the mid-1980s, 12 or 13 years into his job, the ag industry hit tough times and the dealership closed.

By then, Burkard was married and his family had settled on an acreage near Reading. He had a small machine shed and decided to open his own repair shop, working predominantly on Case tractors. He still operates the repair shop, though he’s transitioning into retirement.

“In the early 1990s, my father quit farming,” Burkard said. “I took over what he was farming and I’ve been farming since 1992.”

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Even before his dad retired, Burkard helped with planting and harvest.

End of a row
Rod Burkard competes in the Minnesota Plowing Organization state contest in August 2022.
Photo courtesy of Rod Burkard

“I was always involved in agriculture — even when I worked in town,” he said. “Once I’d spent quite a few years out here and Dad decided to quit (farming), it was a nice break to get out of the shop and go to the farm and do things.”

With Burkard’s expertise in Case tractors, which were no longer manufactured after the company merged with International to become Case-IH, his customer base extends across Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Wisconsin and points beyond. Many of the people are collectors.

“It kind of surprised me that I stayed as busy with them as I did, but I think it was because no one else was available to fix them,” he said, noting that he recently fixed a valve for a Case tractor owned by a guy in New York, and he has another project to fix a tractor part for a guy in Pennsylvania.

“I’ve been slowly trying to get out of the repair business,” Burkard said. “I’ve got projects that I’ve always promised the family — my wife — that I’d do.”

As he eases into retirement from his repair business, Burkard continues to farm and, since becoming a competitive plower, he’s planted five acres of small grains each year just to provide for some plowing practice.

“We did a little plowing when I was still at home,” Burkard said. “It sort of went out of favor with minimum tillage probably 50 years ago now.”

He’s followed the Minnesota Plowing Organization for the past decade, much of that time as a spectator. In 2018, when the World Plowing Contest was hosted in Baudette, he just had to go.

State, nationals and worlds

In 2022, Minnesota hosted both the state and national plowing competition near Greenwald, and because Burkard had placed second the previous summer in Lake Wilson, he was invited to compete in his first national contest.

He had to plow in the open class, rather than antique class, and said competitors in that group could make numerous modifications to their plow. He hadn’t modified his, and admits he was outclassed. He finished sixth of nine participants.

State competition
Rod Burkard competes in the Minnesota Plowing Organization state contest in August 2022.
Photo courtesy of Rod Burkard

In the state contest, Burkard competed in the antique division. It was that contest that gave him the first place award.

“The antique class is, to me, the most fair to everybody because you can’t modify your tractor or your plow,” Burkard said. “You have to use it in the way the manufacturer made it.”

In the antique class, both the tractor and the plow have to be manufactured before 1951. Burkard’s plow, manufactured in 1945, has steel wheels.

With the first place finish in the state, Burkard now has the opportunity to compete in the national plowing contest this year — in Pennsylvania. He isn’t yet sure he’ll make the trip, though he knows of others in Minnesota who have competed in numerous national contests. The 2022 Nationals hosted competitors from Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. In addition to antique and open class divisions, there are also classes for small plows and reversible plows. Rules for the plowing contests were set by the Europeans, Burkard said.

The World Ploughing Contest rotates among 30 to 40 countries, and last year it was hosted in Ireland. First place winners in national contest classes are invited to compete in the worlds.

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Related Topics: WORTHINGTONNOBLES COUNTYFARMINGAGRICULTUREMINNESOTA
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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