By ANN HINCH
LOS OSOS, Calif. — Midwest readers can be forgiven if they only know Farm World weekly syndicated columnist Lee Pitts as “that auctioneer” or “that rancher,” or even the hapless human responsible for keeping his equine stud in line. There are some weeks “It’s the Pitts” might be better known as “Travels With Gentleman,” after all.
“I got a lot of material out of that horse,” Pitts said by phone last week from his California home, mirth in his voice. “And I only paid $750 for him.”
But Pitts, 60, has also spent almost 30 years in charge of the Livestock Market Digest, now a monthly publication based in New Mexico, and he began his writing career earlier than that with the Western Livestock Journal. When the Digest went up for sale, he put together a partnership deal to buy it in 1983.
Once a weekly newspaper, the Digest used to print 44 different editions each week – most of the changes from edition to edition were market reports targeted at different auction markets, where the paper was sold. Pitts, executive editor, said he sold advertising to cattle auctions and, in turn, traveled working in their sale rings; in addition, he wrote a long feature article each week for his paper.
The traveling and auctioneering has stopped, but he still pens investigative features for the Digest each month, as well as the column readers of this and other rural publications know well. “It’s the Pitts” has been around since 1996, but he was writing a column as far back as 1980.
It’s partly his candid attitude and easy-to-understand style that has earned Pitts the American Agri-Women’s (AAW) Veritas Award for 2012. Each year’s recipient is selected by a committee contributed to by AAW state affiliates, according to Linda Matasovic Swiercinsky, a longtime member who handled this year’s nomination process.
“He is controversial, because he speaks his mind – and we like that about him,” said Swiercinsky, of OXO Ranches in Illinois and Colorado. “We don’t usually pick people who are namby-pambies.”
While “It’s the Pitts” is usually doused in humor and stories from Pitts’ life, it’s not uncommon for them to relate to politics, proposed or enacted regulations on agriculture or social attitudes concerning rural people. The AAW describes him as “a seeker of truth, who looks at the whole picture, from all angles. He has the unique ability to make a complicated issue understandable, even when controversial.”
Pitts explained that the federal government owns much of the land out West and even livestock owners who own their own ranches frequently have to make use of grazing on public lands. Through his writing, he has tried to push back at regulations he feels are onerous to these and other ag producers’ livelihood – often measures to protect species deemed “endangered.”
One issue Swiercinsky remembers was a proposal to protect the Bruneau hot springsnail, which she said was discovered in a canal the ranchers used to irrigate their alfalfa. “You can guess what happened,” she said. “The government said they could not disturb this microscopically tiny creature.”
Pitts said he gained attention for ranchers fighting the regulations – not only with his publication, but through legendary radio host Paul Harvey, who often read Pitts’ material on his show.
It’s efforts like this that have made Pitts a contender for the award in previous years and, finally, its recipient in 2012.
“If you put enough heat on (government officials out West) and they think attention will be called to them individually, you’d be surprised how they’ll back off,” he explained, adding the snail was just one example.
Pitts is in notable company; past winners of the award, which has been given since 1981, include Harvey, Julia Child, Dr. Michael DeBakey (human heart transplant pioneer and biomedical researcher) and journalist John Stossel.
Swiercinsky said New Mexico AAW affiliates have strongly supported Pitts’ nomination for the Veritas each time. She, too, is a fan going back many years, when her mother used to clip and send Pitts’ articles to her.
Though he grew up on less than an acre of land as a child, Pitts said, “I love agriculture; I always have, since I was a little kid” – so much, in fact, that he ended up serving as the California FFA state president in 1970-71.
“Without the Future Farmers of America, I don’t know where I’d be today,” he added, explaining it was a way to channel his youthful energy.
Pitts, the author of 11 books, graduated with an animal science degree from Cal Poly University and was a Rotary International Graduate Fellow to the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia. In addition to seeing his work in print internationally, he was co-owner and the “voice” of Western Video Market and has won several awards.
But the Veritas “elates” him, he said, because it’s been his experience the AAW has done more “to set the record straight for agriculture” than almost any other group. It’s a cause obviously dear to his own heart, and women in agriculture, he said, tend to take on hot issues “very quickly and very well” for change. “I respect them and what they’ve done.”
His list of admired women includes his wife of 39 years, Diane, who gets first crack at editing his columns and helping him find ways to voice his thoughts on paper.
Because of an illness, Pitts can’t travel, so Swiercinsky said he will be accepting his award and addressing the AAW’s Annual Convention in Denver, Colo., via Skype on Nov. 10.
He’ll keep writing for as long as he’s able – and as long as there’s someone to read it.
“Seems like every week, I get a weekly newspaper that cancels (my column) because they’ve gotten out of the business or been bought out,” Pitts said. “And I’m not sure how I’d transition to the Web.
“I think I’d rather ride quietly off into the sunset. I like what I’m doing.”