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Plowing Ahead

Plowing's in the blood.

"We have been using Southern States feed all of our lives. Clovis uses Reliance 10 feed in bulk. I use the Legends® Sport Horse Plus from Russell County Co-Op in Lebanon, VA for our young horses and Triple Crown® Senior for my older mare."

At first glance Matthew Adams seems like a perfectly average teenager. The 17-year-old Castlewood, Virginia native is a good son and a sharp student eager to start his senior year at Lebanon High School. (Go Pioneers!) He's a member of the Russell County 4-H Club, the Stockman's Club and the Virginia Draft Horse Association. His favorite subject is history, and he enjoys learning to weld at the vocational school. In his baseball cap and work boots, you'd probably figure him for a typical down-to-earth farm boy.

But Matthew is not typical - far from it. Matthew is keeping alive a farming tradition that's gone nearly extinct in the wake of modern farm equipment. Matthew uses Percheron draft horses to plow his grandfather's 160 acres of farmland, and in his spare time he competes them at the national level.

"A Percheron is a draft horse that originated in France," Matthew says with the kind of knowledge that comes with using plow horses since childhood. "They get up to about 18 hands. We have 26. My grandpa breeds and raises them."

In fact, Matthew's grandfather, Clovis Adams, was the first person to bring a team of Percherons to the region. Clovis was so pleased with their power and obedience that he eventually bought a second pair and began breeding them. He taught his son, Jeff, to plow. And now Matthew is a third generation Percheron plowman.

"I started when I was about 10," Matthew says as if it's all old hat. "My grandpa got me started working with the Percherons. We used them on the farm and I just started helping around on the farm with them. I started by using them to plow tobacco." Now, this image of a young man behind a plow seems natural and nostalgic, but the question remains, in this day and age why use Percherons over a tractor?

Well, Clovis' farmland is parsed out between the foothills, bends and boulders of the Appalachian mountains. In this irregular terrain a hard-pulling team of two of three good horses is better able to maneuver the rows than the newest tractor. In places where a tractor would be all over the place, tearing up crops and fertile topsoil, the surefooted Percherons keep plowing, steady and dependable. That's surprising when you consider that these horses can weigh 1,800 lbs each and pull up to two tons of resistance. But with a skilled plowman at the reins you can make a good Percheron do nearly anything you want.

"You can be more delicate with them. You can get closer to the crops, and you're not likely to tear them up," says Matthew. Simply put, this old-world horse power can work in places where no amount of modern horsepower can even reach. That puts the utility of a Percheron beyond question. But these giants are not your typical horse show material. What is a Percheron competition like, and how are they judged?

"I compete with two horses as a team," says Matthew. "You have to have at least two horses hooked to the plow whenever you plow with them." Matthew competes with his horses, Jim and Bob. At competitions he's given a plot of field and told to plow away. It's not a timed event. It's a competition of precision and skill.

"They judge you by the quality of the work you do, by the depth of the furrow and the straightness of them," Matthew offers. And for a young competitor he's not doing too shabby when it comes to impressing the judges. He took 3rd in the Walking Plow and 4th in the Sulky Plow competitions at last year's 2nd Annual USA Plowing Contest in Dayton, Ohio.

"We're thinking about going back to the USA Plow Contest again this year. It's on September 1st, Labor Day weekend," says Matthew, who's been asked back to represent Virginia. From the looks of things Matthew is following in his grandfather's winning footsteps. Clovis made the Reserve World Champion Team at the 2006 World Percheron Congresses in Lexington, Virginia.

He won the Farm Class and came in 2nd in the Log Pull and in the Obstacle Course.

Clovis is very proud of Matthew and his younger brother, Justin, who's learning the ropes, too. He loves to watch them plow just as much as he loves to plow himself. These Percheron are tall horses and as Matthew grows tall too he's able to groom them, shoe them and harness them by himself. All while Clovis looks on with an approving eye.

But in a story about a tradition of plowing passed down through generations of men, it's only suiting to give a mother the final word. Matthew's mother, Sheila, an instructor at his high school, says that the horses give these young men something more important than a solid day's work.

"I believe the horses have given both my sons responsibility that has helped them succeed in school and life," she says. We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

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