It is a field day of epic proportions. 200,000 visitors, 80,000 cars parked, €36 million spent, 60,000 cups of tea and 160,000 minerals served.
With an expected spend of €36 million over the three day event, the National Ploughing Championships are a welcome boost for Laois businesses, and another opportunity to prove that the county is ideally sited to host giant events, following the success of Electric Picnic.
The championships are on the Carter family farm in Ratheniska, now turned into a tented city with 22km of trackway laid. Many neighbouring farms are being used for ploughing and car parking, covering a total of 700 acres.
President Michael D Higgins will perform the official opening on Tuesday at midday
Anna May McHugh is Managing Director of the NPA for forty years this year.
A Ballyadams lady, she is thrilled the championships have returned to her county.
“I am delighted, it’s great for the community,” she said.
Ploughing still forms the heart of the event, with 311 competitors seeking National titles, qualification for the World and European competitions, and €18,000 in prizes.
But with 1400 trade stands, fashion shows, business and food fairs, forestry, livestock and live music, many visitors are not coming for ploughing.
Thrice daily fashion shows with MC Celia Holman Lee, will feature Autumn Winter fashions from local and national boutiques, with holiday vouchers for two lucky audience members at every show. Wednesday 25 has the Most Appropriately Dressed Lady and Gent competitions, with prizes valued at €1,000.
The Food Fayre will feature the best of Irish produce, while celebrity chefs will be doing demos in many tents.
The ICA tent will feature craft and cooking demonstrations, and the ICA Bootcamp mentors from the RTE series.
As part of the Gathering, a Laois Ploughing Village will host a Céili, exhibitions, a genealogy section with Henry Healy, and a playground.
Laois’ Lions Clubs will have 60 nurses and 120 volunteers offering free diabetic screening, and hope to test 5,000 visitors.
“Up to 200,000 people in Ireland are unaware they have diabetes, with the numbe rof young people affected growing due to obesity,” said John O’Donovan district officer.
Other tents will feature more health checks, lifeguard rescue and farm safety demonstrations.
Several third level colleges will be offering information to transition year visitors.
The Forestry Village will feature the All-Ireland Husqvarna Hurdle obstacle course, birds of prey, and Stradbally allotments.
Irish Vintage Scene will be running a Live Tractor Build Competition, with six teams over three days.
A Junior Hunt Chase takes place on Wednesday, and the Senior chase on Thursday.
The Livestock arenahas prizewinning animals on display, with a demonstration of ‘robotic milking’said to attract thousands.
Music will be provided by Portlaoise Gospel Choir, Ratheniska Marching Band, the Laois School of Music orchestra among many others.
Other popular events include the machinery section, innovations arena, sheep shearing, vintage machinery exhibitions, threshing demonstrations, horse ploughing and sheep dog trials.
“In earlier days it was only ploughing, in old photos you would not see a woman there, now it gets 35 to 40 percent female visitors,” Anna May says.
“It is important to us to keep the event very much agriculture based, we have the fashions, but it is not about that,” she says.
Among the 311 competitors is World champion John Whelan from Wexford who will be ploughing for more gold in the senior reversible.
“There is stiff competition with winners representing each county. I have walked the plot and it’s probably the best I’ve seen, with very little stones, but we could do with a bit of rain,” he said.
The Laois team of 14 includes one female competitor, Anna Marie McHugh, Assistant MD of the NPA, and daughter of Anna May.
Crowned Queen of the Plough in 2008, she hopes to find time in her hectic schedule to plough her county soil for the title again.
“Hopefully I will get to plough,” she says.
The championships cost €3.5million to run, and the company keep enough aside to run two events in case of a bad year.
Anna Marie explains.
“We get no government funding. We send our competitors and machinery to the World Championships, and support 28 affiliated county ploughing associations,” she says.
With bookings already begun for 2014, she says it it too soon to confirm if Laois will hold on to the event.
“It is still up in the air where it will be, it won’t be confirmed until the event or after,” she says.
Admission is €20 for adults, €15 for students and senior and children under 12 go free if accompanied by an adult.See www.npa.ie