Howell Farm will celebrate its 25th-anniversary plowing match this Saturday. The article below appears in this month’s issue of THE FURROW:
Elmer Lapp is one of the great figures of Howell Farm plowing match history.
A lifelong horse farmer from Lancaster County, Pa., Lapp was the plowing match’s first and longest serving judge.
Elmer was judging even when he wasn’t judging,” remembers historical farmer Jeremy Mills. “You’d be talking to him and he’d look up and say, ‘Oh look, that team of horses just broke into lockstep.’ The horses might be a football field away.”
Farmers who knew Lapp remember him as a man who didn’t waste words, but when he spoke about horses people listened. He was considered an expert horseman and was known for his strong will when it came to the job he loved – farming.
Essayist Wendell Berry once wrote of Lapp: “He is not a man to put up long with anything he does not like.”
As the story goes, Lapp suffered from heart disease in his later years and underwent Carotid artery surgery. Shortly after the surgery, his doctor expressly forbade him from attending that year's plowing match, as his health was too poor. Lapp, unwilling to give up so easily, called up his horse veterinarian in hopes of receiving a more favorable second opinion. After the horse doctor proved unwilling to overrule the judgment of Lapp’s medical doctor, Lapp simply decided to attend the match anyway.
Fortunately, Lapp proved no worse for the wear as he rendered his plowing match decisions that year.
On Saturday, August 30, Howell Farm will celebrate its 25th-anniversary plowing match, bringing together more than a dozen horse teams and teamsters. In addition to the plowing contest and the recitation of favorite memories, the day will feature a Howell Farm first—the assembly of a twelve-horse hitch.
It will be Elvin Lapp, Elmer’s son, who will take the lines of a team of 12 draft horses pulling a flatbed wagon loaded with logs. Elvin will also reprise his father’s role as a head judge.
Plowers will be evaluated on 10 criteria, including the depth, straightness, and evenness of their furrow; the condition of their equipment; and the condition and control of their team.
Mills, this year’s other head judge, says that judging the contest can be difficult because often little separates the very best plowers — so many of them are excellent.
Unlike horse shows, Mills says one thing that doesn’t help win a plowing match is a pair of plucky horses that march with their heads held high. “Actually, what I’m looking for is, are these the horses I’d want to work behind in a field all day?” he says. “Do the horses know exactly what they need to do and do they get down to business?”
Longtime Howell Farm horseman Halsey Genung won the first plowing contest in 1984, and since then the title has shifted hands many times. Since 1988, the winner of the match has been awarded the Ben Ellingson Award, a bronze statue of a farmer plowing behind an African zebu. Howell Farm director Pete Watson bought the trophy in a marketplace in Togo in 1988.
“I guess an African zebu might not seem to have the most logical connection to plowing with horses at Howell Farm," Watson admits. “But I saw this statue sitting there in the market and it reminded me of one of the missions of the farm, as well as the people who have helped further that mission.”
Ben Ellingson was a horse farmer from Tennessee and a Hollywood horse stuntman. When he wasn’t farming or making movies, he devoted much of his time to helping train Peace Corp volunteers going into animal traction programs. Watson says Ellingson taught him many valuable lessons, and served as an inspiration for the internship program that exists now at Howell Farm.
“Ben would help anybody,” Watson says. “He helped people in his own backyard the same way he helped animal traction programs in West Africa through the volunteers he helped train.”
Ella Johnston, Ben’s daughter, is scheduled to present the trophy at this year’s match. Brian Hughes, Mercer County Executive, will also help present awards.
The anniversary celebration will feature pony rides, hayrides, a children’s craft program, a pig & chicken roast, homemade ice cream, live music by the Jugtown Mountain String Band, and a plow exhibit by the New Jersey Museum of Agriculture.