Napoleon Hill’s maxim – “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” The story I am about to share is true and exemplifies how a single idea in one man’s head created a world-class event.
Last fall, I visited my parents, who live outside of Regina, Saskatchewan, for the first time in two and half years because of the pandemic. I went to the international agricultural show held annually in Regina with my father. This year’s show was significant to my father, who was one of the early presidents of this show. He had a very successful career as a prominent cattle breeder and was a major force in the development of agriculture in Canada; and inducted into the Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2016. The show, called Agribition, celebrated its 50th show.
I was a teenager when the show started, and my thoughts about exhibiting cattle at this show and others with my father brought back many happy memories. Entering the show complex, I was astounded by the world-class facilities and the sheer size of the show. Wow, what a change from the early days.
Canadian Western Agribition, located in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, is considered the premier livestock show on the continent and the largest livestock show in Canada. Anchoring the show are beef cattle and features horses, bison, sheep, goats, an extensive agribusiness trade show, and a professional rodeo. The show has become the most successful show internationally, attracting delegations from more than 70 countries worldwide.
Agricultural fairs started in the 18th century, growing across Europe in the 19th century, and became the mainstay for agricultural and community development in North America during the 20th century. By the mid-20th century, the two most prominent agricultural events in North America were the Denver Stock Show and the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, fairs mainly were local events where rural people could meet and compete in livestock and grain judging shows. These regional events were essential exchanges of ideas and livestock and grain quality development. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, agricultural fairs started to deemphasize agriculture in favor of entertainment to cater to the growing urban population. Western Canadian cattle breeders needed a venue to promote their cattle to local cattlemen. Western cattle breeders showed cattle at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, far from local markets.
My story begins here. Chris Sutter, a prominent Saskatchewan Hereford breeder and his long-time friend, Jim Lewthwaite, who at the time was the Secretary of the Saskatchewan Hereford Association, traveled to the Denver Stock Show held annually in January at the Denver stockyards. The year was 1970, and Chris and Jim made the annual trip to the livestock Mecca in the heart of the US cattle industry. The Denver Stock Show was a must-attend event if you were a cattle breeder. What made “Denver” unique was a giant marketplace for cattle breeders. Cattlemen would come from all over the continent to buy and sell at the scheduled auctions. But, more importantly, like any other industrial trade show, millions of dollars of transactions would take place privately in the cattle barns. This marketplace contrasted greatly from the regional summer and fall fairs held in Western Canada, where there were no sales and cattlemen had to compete with midway rides and candy floss for attention.
Sitting in the stands at Denver, Chris Sutter, who had been thinking about this for a long time, said to his friend Jim Lewthwaite, “Why don’t we do this in Saskatchewan?” What! Create a Denver on the prairies in the middle of winter? They looked at each other and agreed – Why not?
When they returned home, Chris and Jim decided to try the idea out on fellow cattlemen. Luckily, all the cattle breed associations met annually in late January in one location, alternating between Regina and Saskatoon. So, it was Saskatoon’s turn to host the annual meetings. Chris and Jim canvassed all the associations during their meetings. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the umbrella Livestock Association even provided some funding to get the idea started.
The promoters formed a committee over the next year. The first step was to find a venue and infrastructure to host such an event. The best facilities in the province were owned and managed by the Regina Exhibition Association in Regina, which hosted a rather large summer fair. Buoyed up by the response from the Saskatchewan Livestock Association, a delegation headed by Chris Sutter approached the Regina Exhibition Association to host and manage the show. Unfortunately, all but two directors walked out of the meeting, thinking this was a terrible idea. However, the two directors that stayed felt the concept had merit. Undaunted, Chris stood up at the end of the meeting and said, “Gentlemen (those who were still there), if you won’t help us, we will do this ourselves.” With that statement, Agribition, one of the world’s largest livestock shows and marketplace and the only one run by cattlemen, farmers, and ranchers, was born.
The first show ran from November 30 to December 3, 1971. Like the famous music festival held two years before, it came together just in time and, against all odds, was an overwhelming success with the number of entries and attendance well beyond anyone’s expectation. The committee even added a rodeo for good measure. The Regina Exhibition Association finally consented to lease the facilities to the Agribition committee and provide administrative staff.
During the first ten years, the show experienced growing pains, including almost going bankrupt, outgrowing its facilities, and being threatened by other well-financed venues that wanted to move the show from Regina. However, the spirit of Chris Sutter and fellow livestock people prevailed. As a result, over the next 50 years, Agribition has helped bring about the expansion of world-class facilities in Regina and an international following that has been a tremendous asset to expanding Canadian agricultural exports worldwide. In addition, the show has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity for Canadian farmers and the city of Regina.
What started in one man’s imagination spread to like-minded people, all of whom had no experience in running an international event, grew over 50 years to be one of the world’s great marketing and economic events.
This story should give every budding entrepreneur hope because nothing could be more unlikely than starting Agribition.
The following link will take you to a documentary about Agribition that previously aired on CBC.