An Accidental Tourist in Ag Biotech? (1990-1994)

I am an academic. A public sector social scientist. I have worked in agriculture and biotechnology for more than two decades. For the past 10+ years, I have researched and written about the social, legal, ethical and political aspects of biotechnology and genomics research.  Every day I field questions, answer emails, and engage in online dialogues about the science of genetic engineering as it is applied to agriculture.  It can be a politically and emotionally charged environment, but I do my best to be accurate, accountable and authentic. I love my work.  But I didn’t (always) aspire to work in and with science.  It’s been a long and interesting journey, so I am going to break it down into consumable bits. Here is Part I:

My foray into this science-based world was completely unexpected. It was a whole lot of serendipity combined with (eventually) some key strategic planning. So if you think that I was one of those brilliant geek-types that went directly from high school biology into a science degree program and then onto graduate studies, you would be wrong.

I spent my formative years in Nipawn, a small prairie town in Saskatchewan. You know the kind: where you can’t ‘swing a cat’ without hitting a farmer and where 2/3 of the desks at school were empty during seeding and harvest? It was a great town to grow up in. I graduated from high school in 1983 and entered the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) in Saskatoon, Canada, on a *tiny* entrance scholarship.  I promptly dropped out six weeks later. Let’s just say that my early adult years were not my most productive ones. From there on, I awkwardly stumbled through an assembly line of jobs – some quirky, others entirely uninspiring (retail, commercial and personal insurance, banking, modeling (yes, I did say modeling), and acting (yes, I did say acting)). Despite this series of erratic segues on and off the career-building map, my interests from an early age were pretty clear: I liked political sciences, loved the arts and imagined myself to one day be a great writer (note: no science).  Eclectic, I admit. But in my head, it made sense.

Tanya, me and Hayden

Tanya, me and Hayden

They say that necessity is the motherhood of invention. By 1990 (and without going into the sordid details), I found myself on my own (scared) and a single parent. I knew that had to re-invent myself.  I had to secure gainful, stable employment and let’s face it – the kids had to be fed. I qualified for a government-sponsored educational program for low-income single parents where I took both office administration and bookkeeping courses. I then built upon those skills and took some graphic arts courses (tapping into some of my ‘arts’ interests) and began to do freelance work in Saskatoon.  I created signs and logos as well as posters and other promotional materials for fashion and other retail businesses as well as some not-for-profit organizations. I illustrated a couple of books and helped design some teaching materials for parenting manuals. Needless to say, it was hard to make ends meet. So, to keep the wolves at bay, I took on some part-time work with my uncle.

Uncle “C” had (for all intents and purposes) an ‘organic’ garden (this was long before organic standards had been introduced in Canada). I helped Uncle “C” to harvest those vegetables and even helped him sell them at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.  It just so happened that Uncle “C” was also developing a U-Pick fruit and berry orchard on a property located south west of Saskatoon (near where Moon Lake Golf presently sits).

At the time, the company that sold high quality fruit seedlings was Prairie Plant Systems Inc (PPS) in Saskatoon.  This is where my uncle sourced the trees for his orchard.  These cultivars were cloned via tissue culture biotechnology and were early-maturing, higher yielding with better tasting, bigger fruit.  Uncle “C” carved out 2+ acres of land (a corner bit outside of a crop irrigation circle on his land) to accommodate these new trees.  I was there to help prepare the ground, haul the wee trees and plant them in an effort to get that fledgling orchard started.  I was also fortunate enough to meet Brent Zettl (president and CEO of PPS) who just happened to be looking for administrative help. He offered me a job.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc. – at the time – was a very small company. It was started in 1988 by two young entrepreneurs (one of them was Zettl), both of whom admitted to being ‘wet behind the ears’ (undergraduates in the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan) and entirely unapologetic that they had started the tissue culture business as a basement operation.

LF Krisjanson Biotech Complex (credit: U of S Archives)

LF Krisjanson Biotech Complex (credit: U of S Archives)

By the time, I joined PPS, the company and its employees had office, lab and greenhouse space in the LF Kristjanson Biotechnology Complex at Innovation Place, Saskatoon. When you work for a small company, you wear many hats.  My primary role at PPS was as office administrator.  I helped develop much of the marketing materials for all the product lines. But I also helped with the books, helped write funding proposals, did payroll and GST, I worked in the greenhouse and in the field.

Flin Flon, MB. (credit: Wikipedia)

Flin Flon, MB. (credit: Wikipedia)

Together with Golder Associates, we negotiated a contract with Cameco to test several woody and grass species’ success rates for survival under different habitat conditions at Key Lake Mines. So I spent a few days during the year in North Central Saskatchewan helping to source indigenous plant material so that we could take it back to the lab, propagate it and re-plant it to designated sites, monitor the growth and collect data.* PPS also had arrangements with Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company (HBMS) in Flin Flon, Manitoba, where we had several different plants growing in a copper/zinc mine drift 1000+ feet below the surface of the earth (very film noire)! We grew roses, fruit trees, and peace lilies which were part of our product offerings to our customers as well as fresh herbs which we harvested bi-weekly and sold to local restaurants in Saskatoon.

Brent Zettle prunes roses in underground growth chamber (credit: PPS)

Brent Zettl prunes roses in underground growth chamber (circa early 1990s) (credit: PPS)

And…we even grew a few Pacific Yew Trees (Taxus berevifolia). This endeavour was part of a small contract we had with a west coast pharmaceutical company. An important cancer fighting component found in the bark and needles of the Pacific Yew tree is Taxol and it is used in the treatment of ovarian cancer.  The problem at the time, however, was one of supply.  It takes 30 or more years for these unique trees to reach maturity in the wild.  And we were experiencing tripled growth rates of almost everything we grew in the controlled environment of the mine drift.  So, it just made sense to see what kind of effect the environment in the underground growth chamber would have on the development of those trees.

This was the company’s first foray into pharma.  But it certainly wouldn’t be its last.  PPS – and its CEO, Brent Zettl – has since moved onto other things ‘medicinal.’ By 2001, the company secured a $5.7 million cultivation contract to produce medicinal marijuana for distribution to the public as part of the Canadian government’s Marijuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) program.  PPS and HBMS collaboratively worked together on this.

A few years ago, I invited Brent to address a group a 4th year business students about the evolution of Prairie Plant Systems Inc. in a Biotechnology and Public Policy course I was teaching at the Edwards School of Business at the U of S. What had transpired for PPS in the span of only a decade was mind boggling.  By 2003/04, they had established collaborative ventures with another two mining companies in North America to establish more underground growing operations (names undisclosed due to the sensitive nature of the market and the work).  Think about it… can you name a more secure, controlled place to grow medicinal marijuana than a mine drift? PPS has been the sole provider of pharmaceutical-grade marijuana to Health Canada for the past 13 years.  The company was just awarded the first two licenses to produce medical marijuana under Health Canada’s new Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc.

I left PPS in 1994 (more ag adventures outlined in the next blog post).  I was with the company during the formative years when, as is the way of small business, it struggled the most.  It was a time when you wish you didn’t know what you knew – a time when meeting payroll and other financial obligations were challenging, to say the least.  PPS has survived. In fact, despite a few cannibus-production-quality-low-points, it has thrived.

…And I guess I have, too.

– – –

*Johannesen, D., L. Haji and B. Zettl. (1995) “Progressive Reclamation Work at Cameco-Uranerz Key Lake Operations (1978 – 1995). In Henry T. Epp’s Ecological Reclamation in Canada at Century’s Turn.  Pages 89-103.

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