Q&A: "Mr. Agriculture" Leaves the Stock Show After 20 Years

January 2014

No one would argue that Marvin Witt has paid his dues to the world of agriculture. Witt grew up on a farm in North Dakota, headed 4-H efforts in high school, studied agriculture education in college, and has played virtually every role imaginable at the National Western Stock Show since coming to Denver more than two decades ago.

Initially recruited to get the show’s equine program on budget, Witt wasted no time in developing some of the fair’s most popular attractions: the Wild West Show, dancing horses, and the Draft Horse Show. After a few years, he began overseeing the trade show displays. In 2003, Witt assumed the position of executive vice president. This year’s Western Stock Show will be the first year in a decade without Witt in the VP spot, and the first in 20 without him at all. 5280 sat down with Witt to talk about present-day agriculture, the future of the Stock Show, and sweet retirement.

5280: Why did you decide to retire now? 

I kind of lost track of time. I went back to a high school reunion a few years ago and my classmates referred to me as Mr. Agriculture. It consumed my whole life, agriculture. I have some really good friends that have retired this year, and we were sitting there talking about how after so many years of this, you need new vision and new looks. I think some people hang on just to have a desk, but you need to be creative and have new ideas.

You can only ride the same horse for so long. I had a cowboy friend who once said to me, we always have a horse we favored, but somewhere along the line, no matter how good that horse was, you have to say goodbye and move on.

5280: You’ve worked in agriculture and livestock your whole life. What are some of the difficulties of working in those industries?

The challenge in the livestock industry is that we’ve always been striving to produce the best products, the most efficiently and cost effectively. Agriculture feeds the world. It’s a big task. And it takes all hands on deck to make it happen. Every year we have fewer ranchers and fewer farmers, and because of that, each farmer and rancher has to feed more mouths. So it’s a big challenge feeding this country. Less than two percent of this population is involved in growing this food. You look back in history, there were times when 30 percent, 50 percent of the population was involved, and each year that percentage just keeps going down and down yet the population keeps exploding.

5280: How do we solve that problem? 

The big concern has been that the average age of a farmer or rancher is about 55 years of age, and that’s scary. For a lot of years a lot of these young people didn’t want to come back to the farm. But now we’re seeing a lot of these people wanting to come back. Agriculture has got a new charisma to it, and new feel to it. It’s looked at as an important part of the economy. Technology has finally reached the agriculture world. Everything is computerized. They farm now with GPS—the equipment’s hooked into satellites so when they harvest they can tell what parts of the field are not productive, what parts needs fertilizer, how much yield they have. They’ve even got tractors now that you don’t even have to drive them, you just program them and they’ll farm everything. It’s not the backbreaking job that it was during the 50s and 60s. Today, it’s exciting. Times have changed.

5280: Are you concerned about the future of the stock show and staying relevant? 

You have to be. I always tell people don’t get complacent. Our founding fathers were the Chicago International, the premiere show for years and years. It no longer exists. I had the good opportunity in the late 60s to attend the show and, as an exhibitor and participant, saw it slipping. The people that were running it didn’t see it happening, and finally in 1973 they announced they were shutting the doors forever. But if you’d have asked those people the year before, they would’ve said, "We’ll be here forever." They just lost touch with where things were going. And over the years we’ve seen other shows that have lost the statue they had. They’ve lost a lot of their pizzazz.

Also, you have to offer other things for people. When I first came to the Stock Show, we did 23 ticketed performances, rodeos and that sort of thing. Last year that number was 42. Not everybody is going want to take their children to the Stock Show or like rodeo. But small children love to see the Wild West Show...and then there’s the Draft Horse Show for the old time farmers. You have to make a lot of changes, and that’s what the Stock Show has been trying to do over the years.

5280: Are you going to keep one leg in the world of agriculture? 

Oh yes, oh yes. I look forward to it and that’s why I’m so fortunate. I get to live outside of the city of Denver. I live out in the country. Every morning I get up, I feed a few cows, feed my horses. Got a few acres, just to keep my fingers in it. Half dozen cows, about that many horses, just a few lambs in summertime, and so on. My wife and I still help with the 4-H clubs and participate in some of the county fairs.

5280: Are you nervous about being bored without work? 

A lot of people say, “Are you sure you want to not work anymore?” Well, I grew up on a farm, and my first job that I remember on the farm was 1961. I was 11 years old. ...I’ve paid my dues. It was a heck of an experience, a heck of a lot of fun, but it’s all we’ve ever done is just work, work, work. Now it’s time to have some fun.

—Image courtey of Pearl's Pics