Monsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it…

Highlights:

  • Transitioning from the public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector is challenging – both professionally and personally.
  • Learnings:
    • being different is an asset,
    • being vulnerable can lift you up,
    • asking for help is OK, and
    • maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards.

——

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Four years ago today, I started my job as Social Sciences Lead with Monsanto.

The decision to transition from public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector was part strategy and part leap of faith for me. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I considered my options (along with other offers that came my way) and I decided to join Monsanto. My role was the first of its kind in the company; the first of its kind in the industry. The career challenges associated with that alone attracted me. But I was also keenly aware that social science and humanities disciplines serve an important role in understanding and informing society during difficult times. The agricultural industry – and food production more broadly – was struggling with a public image problem. While my publicly funded research activities had been largely devoted to understanding this complex environment and in communicating through it, I also believed that my new role would present greater opportunity to be part of meaningful solutions. The move to Monsanto was a risk – but it was a calculated one. I viewed this opportunity as a social science case study of a lifetime.

But I underestimated just how tough that transition would be.

After more than a year working for the company remotely from my home in Alberta, I jumped at the chance to move down to headquarters in St. Louis to work face-to-face with my Monsanto colleagues. I made the move in December of 2015 and my husband, Blair, joined me a couple of months later. We settled on a lovely little farm outside of Eureka, Missouri; one with a charming old farmhouse (in need of an update), a barn, and space that could accommodate our collection of critters (horses, dogs). It was all very idyllic and I was optimistic about the future.

Then everything changed.

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By mid-March of 2016, I found myself firmly wedged in a soul-sucking depression. In hindsight, I can identify several triggers for this. I left grown kids, friends, and family behind in Canada. I really misjudged how difficult that would be for me; how lonely I would find life so far from the people I loved. And don’t get me started on the daily commute. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (current population ~300K) was largest city I’ve ever lived in my life prior to this move. So, a 40-minute commute on major artery (formerly known as Route 66) intimidated the hell out of me. Let’s just say it wasn’t a great way to start and end each day in a job that I was already struggling to wrap my head around. I was in a new country, experiencing a new (corporate) culture. To say that the colour had faded from my life was an understatement. My days were grey and interspersed with a series of drab, monochromatic moments. I also noticed the subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) way relationships changed with my old academic friends and colleagues. Where once doors were held open wide, things had now been reduced to awkward exchanges through peepholes. While I anticipated I would be met with these kinds of challenges when I made the leap to the private sector, I was not prepared for how I would feel about it when I faced them. It was like I’d been voted off the island.

monochromatic

To be clear, this bout of depression wasn’t my ‘first rodeo’. And while I was disappointed to find my feet firmly planted in another one, I was also grateful when I finally recognized it. What I’d learned from past experiences was that being open and honest about my depression didn’t make me broken, it made me human. I recognized a pattern, too. Depression seems to find me at times of mind-numbing upheaval in my life (loss of loved ones) or major life shifts (physical moves or career changes). With this latest bout, I discovered that I lacked the emotional bandwidth to manage a life change of this magnitude. I needed help. And I got it.

Let’s face it, you can’t find your way around depression, you must find your way through it. A turning point came for me later in 2016 when the farmhouse renovation was finally done. We settled into a home life that was free of disruptive construction noises; one with a fully functioning kitchen (for us, the heart of the home). I could finally ‘nest’ and establish our ‘sanctuary’. While my connection to friends and family in the home country had indeed changed, by this point we had come up with fun, new ways to connect in creative ways through daily texts and Snapchat groups. Something that also really helped me through the dark days was guidance I received from my new boss. She provided me with a compass (a map, if you will) so that I could navigate through this very puzzling space we call ‘corporate culture’.

Companies like Monsanto traditionally hire people with know-how in finance, law, communications, agronomy, plant genetics, and engineering. I was different. I was firmly entrenched in my identity and experience as a social science academic and – for a while -I didn’t feel like I was a “fit”. You know, the proverbial ‘square peg’ in a ’round hole’. I often think that the  transition would have been so much easier if there were more people like me at the company. I recognized long ago the value that people with expertise like mine can bring to a company like this; to an industry like agriculture. But it took a while for me to convey that value in a way that my Monsanto colleagues could connect with and understand.

There are huge opportunities for all manner of social science and humanities disciplines in the agricultural industry. While corporations need to better recognize these opportunities, academia also needs to get past its antipathy towards corporations. There is room for and real opportunity in corporations for people with all kinds of expertise in the social sciences and humanities: people like cultural anthropologists, behavioral scientists, social psychologists, etc.

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Monsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it. The transition from public sector research to the private sector represented a move away from my academic ‘clan’. I was wholly unprepared for how this would affect me personally and professionally. The good news is that I found my way through it. I learned the language. Yes, there’s a ‘language’ here in the corporate space.  I learned how to communicate my ideas in ways that my colleagues could understand so that I could mobilize those ideas and get things done. I realized that I could navigate and find a place in this corporate space while still maintaining my values and my identity.

We often underestimate how even the subtlest of shifts in life can impact our capacity to manage them. What I’ve discovered through all of this is that being different is an asset, being vulnerable can lift you up, asking for help is OK, and – most importantly – maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards. You just need the courage to persevere.

cami chair
I do love colour! 🙂

Resources:

The Do More Ag Foundation “helping champion the mental well being of all Canadian producers”

Free the PhD! Find the Job. Get the job. Love your life outside the lab.

Schrage, Michael (2015). “Why the future of social science is with private companies.” Harvard Business Review. Available online at: https://hbr.org/2015/09/why-the-future-of-social-science-is-with-private-companies

Paech, Gemma. “Ten Lucrative Career Options for Social Science PhDs.” The Cheeky Scientist. Available online at: https://cheekyscientist.com/lucrative-social-science-career-options/

Ryan, Cami. (2016). Why is a social scientist working at Monsanto? Blog: Cami Ryan. Available online at: https://camiryan.com/2016/10/27/why-is-a-social-scientist-working-at-monsanto/

4 Steps to Good Storytelling

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Last year, I was invited to share my science communication story at CropLife Canada’s Spring Dialogue Days. It was great to be standing in front of a crowd of 150+ of my peers, friends, and colleagues in the capitol of my homeland. I was home and all was right with the world.

In the days leading up to the event, however, I struggled to find the right blend of life events and lessons-learned to share with this crowd. What would be most meaningful?

The past 20+ years has been a rich tapestry of experiences for me from a science communication perspective (starting here…up until now). I ended up sharing a personal story of milestones and anecdotes from the past 10 years. Most significantly, though, I shared some observations about the evolving role that storytelling plays in building public trust in modern agriculture.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, states: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We humans love stories. Stories are woven into the social fabric of our lives. Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. A good story – when it’s told well – releases chemicals in the listener’s brain. These chemical reactions build trust between the storyteller and the listener.

As an industry, we have come to recognize this power that storytelling has. Stories are channels for sharing information, learning, and for building and sustaining relationships. We find common ground by sharing the human experience. Yes, farmers and scientists are stepping out from fields and labs to share their stories. But the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection. Here are some tips:

1) Know your audience. That’s a given, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing your audience today means something entirely different than it did 10 years ago. It requires social networking savvy and a nuanced understanding of human behavior (your own included). Ideologies and perceptions are reinforced by our close personal networks (and those networks have expanded since the onset of the Internet). We humans depend upon our personal networks for social survival. If stories don’t reflect our personal and network identities, we are less likely to connect with them and the storytellers because – let’s face it – our social survival depends on it. The last thing that we want is to be voted off the island.

2) Be clever; be creative. We live in a ‘fast information nation.’ People want to be entertained first, informed second. Our ‘social living room space’ has expanded and new tools and platforms pop up everyday. Take advantage of them. Use your words wisely and economically. Paint pictures with your words. Don’t be afraid to use humour. Think outside your own bubble (community, tribe, sector, discipline, vocation…).

3) Stories not only have to be compelling, they must be useful. The Oxford English dictionary defines useful as: “Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.” As I see it, stories need to be:

  • Accessible: Is it readily available in spaces where your audience can find it? Think: social media platforms. Be where people are.
  • Relatable: Can a listener understand the content or the plotline? Lose the jargon! How does your story matter to the listener? Example: Does your science or farm story resonate with a suburban mom? Anticipate how she might share that story with her friends and family members. Equip her with the best metaphors.
  • Transferable: How can someone use your story to enhance their own? Your story needs to tap into and cut across cultures and belief systems in this world of mass information and diminishing attention spans.

4) Avoid the pitfalls of drive-by storytelling. This is when we shape a compelling story, drop it into a conversation, and then quickly move on. Be present. Track your story. When appropriate, update and engage around that narrative to reflect current events or new social realities.

Today, people have a very narrow view of science and its role in modern agriculture. Our job as science communicators is to expand knowledge in meaningful ways. Stories can be a vehicle for that. They are a mirror for social organization and community-based values and reflections of personal identities. We must keep in mind, however, that while communicating the value of science is very important, how we carry it out in this network-driven world matters even more. We must seek avenues to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their personal networks – and their identities.

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This blog post a slightly re-imagined version of guest postI wrote for SAIFood.ca in May 2017. That original post is here.

My Science Love Story

SAIFood Blog recently allowed me to take up a bit of their ‘online real estate’ to share my thoughts on storytelling and science communication. An excerpt:

“…the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection.”

“Sure, Cami. You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk? What’s your story?”

I’m glad you asked. This short, animated video documents my evolving ‘love story’ with science. And you might be in for a surprise. How that love affair started had very little to do with the science that was being done.

(story by me; illustrations by me; narration by me)

What’s your story? How are you going to tell it?

story of science

2016 – The Year of Gratitude and Grit

Last year was my “Year of Living Creatively”.  My goal was to familiarize myself with some of my old hobbies (painting, poetry-writing, handi-crafts, etc) and experience new ones. Although I didn’t ‘create’ (in the crafty sense) as much as I would have liked to in 2015, I did accomplish a few things:

  •  I finger-crocheted a scarf and have started crocheting an afghan (with the help of my daughter, the crocheting fiend <3).
  • I acted in a local theatre production with Dewdney Players in Okotoks, Alberta. I love theater and theatre peeps. Check out my post about that experience here.
  • I baked a pie. This might sound simple for some, but not for me. ‘Science made me do it’ and I overcame a lot self-doubt in the process. I posted a blog entry on the whole ordeal. Check it out.
  • My husband and I built a brand new house in the Foothills of Alberta. We also sold it six months later. Sigh. Quite a bit of creativity goes into designing, building, and decorating a house. But there is a whole new level of creative thought that goes into letting that home go after such a short time. (I tried to not get emotionally attached but…)
  • Finally, over the past several months, I settled into my new position with Monsanto Canada. This was quite a process as I had to do it remotely (from my home office in Alberta), away from my team of colleagues. That’s tough. I missed the day-to-day and face-to-face interactions. Added to that, transitioning from academia into working in the private sector is not easy.

It is also not easy to leave family, friends and move to another country…

That’s why I’ve dubbed 2016 “The Year of Gratitude and Grit”.  This year marks something new and exciting for us. Earlier this month, The Cowboy and I settled on a property in Missouri. From our new home, we will navigate the next leg of our life journey (and I will continue my work with Monsanto at the company’s head office in St. Louis). While we were so sad to leave friends, family (especially our grown son and daughter) in Canada, this new adventure represents exciting new opportunities for us. We get to explore a new part of the world, experience different cultures, see new sights and build relationships with people in a new community.

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It takes courage and ‘pluck’ (as my grandma would say) to take life-changing steps like these and permanently plant oneself in another part of the world. That’s where the ‘Grit’ comes in. As for ‘Gratitude’, we are thankful for every experience that has led us to this moment. And we are grateful for every opportunity that will move us forward from here.

A few items to take note of…

Our new community in Missouri was hit by a massive flood over the holidays.  This situation reminded me of the High River flood of 2013. (#HellOrHighWater). And although it will take some time for the community of Eureka (and surrounding areas) to recover and rebuild, there has been a great deal of progress to date. As always, I am amazed by the resilience of people! #EurekaStrong #Grit #Gratitude

The Cowboy and I love our new property (pictured below). The house that we purchased is nestled on a handful of picturesque acres where our horses will have plenty of room to run.  The house itself is 50 years old and very charming but in is dire in need of a renovation. Most of you probably know that The Cowboy is a finishing carpenter / craftsman. When he arrives with horses and tools next week, we will be getting started on what will likely turn out to be 12-week home improvement project. Stay tuned as I will be tweeting the entire process from beginning to end. And maybe, just maybe, the social-media-shy Cowboy will let me take pictures of him in action! #Grit #Gratitude #RenoJunkies

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“Grit is pushing beyond the platitudes, and finding authentic connections that will encourage you to embrace discomfort and embark on a journey that always seeks to push you outside the box.”

Chrissanne Long

Meme-ufactured.

I constructed and posted a rather provocative meme the other day.

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quote source: @Toby_Bruce

The meme had an image.  It was graphic, shocking and sad. A photo of a starving child.

I shared the meme publicly on Twitter and privately with some of my colleagues, family and friends through email and Facebook.  The meme resonated in different ways with different people. Responses came quickly, both publicly and privately. Some found the meme thought-provoking and effective:

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. There is a very real human cost to the delay of Golden Rice and some people need to be strongly reminded of that. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words.”

“I don’t see how using existing images without turning profit is wrong. Because it makes [people] uneasy to see what is daily life for half the world?”

Others, however, were shocked and offended:

“The photo was horrifying. It eclipsed the message. I didn’t see it. What did it say?”

“I saw your meme and it kind of bothered me. I agree with so much of what you have to say, but I don’t think anyone should use the specter of poverty to make a point.”

“I’m concerned with the objectification of poor people by first world people. I don’t care what the message is. [The meme] is offensive and exploitive to people who don’t have voices.” 

Others were:

“I’m personally not a fan of using these types of images for anything but e.g. specifically raising starvation awareness. If anyone can misconstrue the message, they will play the exploitation card.”

“It is shocking, sad and evocative.  In the worst case it is a polar equivalent to the visuals used by the anti-biotech interests.”

memeufactured

Click on image to view Twitter dialogue

Humans think in pictures. While words can go in one ear and out the other, images ‘stick.’ This is why memes are such effective visual communication tools in this day and age of decreasing attention spans.  Memes come in the form of images or short videos and they can spread rapidly via the Internet.  We see memes cycling through our social media feeds every day.

I learned a few things about memes through this interesting exercise:

  1. These kind of communication tools can be effective, if properly executed.
  2. Proper execution requires a pre-emptive well-thought-out overarching strategy with defined goals.
  3. Each individual meme needs to be structured around a well-articulated message.
  4. That message has to be paired with an appropriate image.
  5. If the image and message don’t connect in a meaningful way or if the image is “over the top” meaning may be lost.

Where do we draw those lines? What is “over the top”? Did I use rhetoric and an emotionally-charged image to frame an ethical issue with my meme? Am I just another example where ideology led a good person with good intentions to do a wicked thing?

Communicating in this information-rich world is tough. To make our communications more effective, (and I quote Made To Stick (by Heath and Heath)), “…we need to shift our thinking from What information do I need to convey? to What questions do I want my audience to ask?” For any idea (or message) to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity.  Humans are hard-wired to feel things for people, not abstract objects or ideas.

In my blog post of October 28th, I stated that there is no room in well-executed science for provocateurs.  But is there room for a shocking and confrontational blend of images and rhetoric in order to draw First World attention to some of the world’s most dire problems, like hunger? As Steve Savage says in his blog post, Counting the Cost of the Anti-GMO Movement:

“There is a long growing list of environmental and health improvements that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement hadn’t been so effective… Some are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.”

Memes (highly controversial and inaccurate ones) continue to be an important tool in the anti-GMO toolbox. In response to that argument, my very good colleague and friend said:

“Cami, why sink to their level? We are smarter than that!” And another said:

“If this meme were to factor into the GMO debate, I think it would derail the discussion completely and not help the cause at all.”

Good points. Both of them. As is this comment by a Twitter friend:

“We need to respond to human suffering with compassion. Memes designed to prove the meme-makers point are not very compassionate.”

Are those of us that are trying to mitigate some of the damage done by the anti-GMO movement – those of us that want to see some the great technologies that we have in the First World move to where they are most needed in the Third World – being exploitative if we use these kind of memes to communicate our messages? If there are ‘boundaries’ that we need to adhere to, what are they? And how can we advocate for things like Golden Rice without using images of children?

Epilogue: I admit, the meme was shocking. A disturbing image combined with a provocative message. I shared it to provoke ‘raw’ responses.  And I got them. Most responses were highly critical. More than half that voiced opposition to the meme were close friends and family members. It would be fair to assume that they were shocked that I constructed it and I shared it as much as they were by the meme itself. 
 
For the record, if this meme had crossed my desktop I probably would never have shared it. I generally share ones with images of the Dos Equis Man with taglines about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Anyway, this was an interesting exercise and I am grateful for all of you that chimed in. Your feedback was supportive, critical, sometimes loud, often emotionally-charged – but always very insightful.Thank-you.

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.

“Vicky ‘Camilla’ Barcelona” – Javier, where are you?

Barcelona is colourful, in a terra-cotta kind of way.

I arrived early this morning and, like other times when I travel afar, I found myself a bit dazed and confused.  Even though my ticket said that I would be arriving early in the day, I found it difficult to discern whether it was – in fact – morning or if it was early evening.  The sun cast odd (to me) hues across the concrete-scape of Barcelona metro as the buildings whipped by my taxi window at a dizzying rate. They are deceiving colours, ones that can play time-tricks on the mind.

The Hotel Alexandra is lovely and I really wanted to get to my room and crash. But I had to kill a few hours before I could check in.  That meant staving off this impending jet-lag which, no doubt, accounted for my disorientation.  Jet-lag always makes me feel as if someone has stuffed cotton into my nose and ears, clear up to the grey matter.

I headed out on foot with a goal of making it to the Picasso Museum.  I made my way down Av. Diagonal towards the older part of Barcelona.  High-end stores line this main drag but lucky for me (and my pocketbook) none were open. It was too early. I passed by Casa Batlló, a building restored by the infamous architect Antoni Gaudi, and noticed that the structure was already drawing a crowd outside even at such an early hour. Wow.  Gaudi’s gift of architectural art is well-known all over the world and his works are certainly sights to behold in Barcelona (Gaudi Park comes highly recommended – I will try to get there this week as well).

Casa Batlló, restored by Gaudi (Barcelona)

I spent a bit of time people-watching (and resting my tired hoofies) at the Plaça de Catalunya which is a large square in central Barcelona and near Las Rablas. Then I made my way to Le Seu Cathedral which is in the center of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic district).  What a stunning structure! I love Cathedrals.  Especially Gothic Cathedrals.  When you enter Le Seu, the silence is deafening. It almost feels like you have been cloaked in heavy velvet as you pass through its portal. And I don’t know where I have been for the past several years but it appears that technology has a firm foothold in the Cathedrals.  The faithful can now insert coins – as signs of prayer or reflection – and one or more electric candles will temporarily light up. Call me old fashioned, but I still favour a more traditional approach: sulfur, glass powder and oxidizer put to wick and wax.

I can’t say enough about the Picasso Museum.  It was the highlight of my day.  I am not as familiar with the Degas-esque part of Picasso’s career but it was interesting to view the evolution of this artist’s life through his work.  From muted tones in the late 19th century, to wild shots of colour coming into his works at the turn of the century (influenced by his time in Paris) and then there was the blue period…all this evolving into the oddly childlike, yet powerful works that most of us probably are most familiar with when one conjures up visions of “Picasso”.

Hopefully, time will permit me to blog again this week.  The conference programme is pretty full and I still have some preparations to do before I present on Wednesday (not to mention, a report to write by week’s end).  In the meantime, check out more photos at: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151840792305383.870419.729100382&type=3

By the way, no sign of Javier Bardem.  Damn it.

SIGN OF THE DAY: “Professional baggage stealers operate in this place” (Starbucks, Barcelona)

Strange ways and tastes… with cravings for space (a poem)

In 2002, this poem (by me) was published in the small anthology Coming up for Air (published by Cranberry Tree Press; edited by Langs & Smith).  The poem “Whispers from ‘The Gap'” is part whimsy, part nostalgia – a reflection of childhood memories.  But mostly, it is an ode to the prairie. Especially wonderful as my poem was positioned right after Evelyn Lau’s poem. #honoured

Flores LaDue – ‘First Lady’ of the Calgary Stampede

‘Flores LaDue’ by Ruth Vickers (Oil on masonite. 40″ x 40″)

A couple of months ago, I was on a mission to replace a tattered (but well-loved) living room chair and ottoman with two occasional chairs. Being the budget-minded person that I am, I checked out online sources for gently-used options and found a spectacular set of chairs.

But that’s not what this blog entry is about…

Through this chair-buying transaction, I was connected (indirectly) to an absolutely amazing artist by the name of Ruth Vickers. One of Ruth’s paintings – a seascape – hung on the wall of Colleen’s master bedroom (previous owner of amazing chairs that I bought). I commented on the painting and technique and Colleen said that it was her sister’s work (Ruth). Long story short, we somehow got to talking and a link was made between me, the Calgary Stampede (I’m on the Ag Media Committee) and a very interesting and rodeo-relevant piece of Ruth’s work. Colleen mentioned that her sister had done a painting of the Stampede’s ‘First Lady’ Flores LaDue.

As some of you might know, this year marks the 100th year of the Calgary Stampede – ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. Guy Weadick (whose face graces the Stampede poster this year) is the ‘Father of the Frontier Show’ and the originator of the Calgary Stampede. One century ago, Weadick (with the help of many other rodeo-advocates) got everything started in Calgary. A successful man, Weadick made quite a mark in the cowboy world through this and other efforts. His legend lives on.

But behind every successful man, there is a woman. Isn’t that what they say?Flores LaDue, the stage name of one Grace Bensell, is that woman. Both accomplished trick ropers, Guy and Flores worked the vaudeville circuit performing stunts in western acts all across North America and Europe. They eventually settled together in Western Canada and have found a final resting place in High River. Quite a unique couple, I’d say, with a unique history.

Ruth Vickers is a prolific artist but not well-known. Particularly not for her western art. I had that chance to chat with Ruth by phone a few weeks ago; a lovely lady. She said that she was greatly inspired (as many of us are) by history and by passionate people that go ‘against the grain’ and offer inspiration through their activities and contributions. Flores LaDue and her life and ‘trickery’ inspired Ruth Vickers and Ruth Vickers was inspired to paint her.

I had the opportunity to view Ruth’s masterful work of art at her mother’s house in High River this past week. It is truly remarkable piece as you can see. The dimensions of the piece are 3′ x 4′ and – yes folks – it is for sale! I am in the process of ‘working my networks’ to see if we can get this magnificent piece of art on display prior to and during the Stampede in July this year. Perhaps even find a buyer!

UPDATE: ‘Working the networks’ paid off.  I managed to get Ruth hooked up with some amazing women affiliated with the annual LaDue Ladies Lunch. Long story-short, on July 5th, 2012, Ruth’s painting was successfully auctioned off at the LaDue Ladies Lunch. Ruth was in attendance. I missed the event but received word of the sale via text. I was so excited for Ruth! What an artist! What a story! So happy to have played a small role in it!

For more information on Ruth Vickers, the artist, and her work, please drop me an email! I will happily connect you to Ruth and her family! Check out Ruth’s amazing work at: http://cargocollective.com/ruthvickersartist

Check out a related blog that I wrote for the Calgary Stampede here!