A Girl Least Likely: my unexpected journey through agriculture

How does a girl from small town Saskatchewan, Canada, find her way through life and end up working at the headquarters of a multinational crop science company in St Louis, Missouri?

I’d like to tell you that it was a straight path; you know – ‘as the crow flies’. I’d like to tell you that it was intentional, planned, strategic.

But it wasn’t.

This is not your typical agriculture related story. This is my story; the story of my very unlikely journey that got me to where I am today.  This story is one part navel gazing (so, yeah, I might brag a little) but it’s probably two parts heartache. I am going share some personal and surprising artefacts about my life. I will also share some learnings at the end.

I will begin with one key learning I’ve had: Life is a path. And there are only two rules: you begin, and you continue. You may not have the choice of how you begin but I’ve learned that you always have the choice about how you can continue – the paths you choose.

THE EARLY YEARS: I grew up the daughter of the Canadian prairies. A small-town girl from a farming community.

A dreamer, an idealist, a romantic.

My childhood was unstable in many ways. We were a nomadic family. My dad moved from job to job and town to town. Because of this, my grandmother became an enormously stable influence for me. Mostly because her place – near the family homestead – became a pitstop along the path of many moves.

This less-than-stable early upbringing probably led me to choose several wrong paths throughout my life (more on that later). To be sure, instability undermined my confidence. In fact, for most of the first three decades of my life I felt paralyzed by self-doubt and shame.

You see…I was that kid. The wrong one … or at least I felt that way. I was an accident – born an only child who eventually evolved into being the middle child of a blended family. I was a cliché. I was the author of “firsts” in the family: first to drop out of university, first to get pregnant out of wedlock, first to divorce, first to be a single parent…the list goes on and on.

Ironically, however, there was a wild and naïve ambition that drove me as a young adult. These ambitions were unrealistic, shaped by aesthetics, and a bit of insecure vanity. And for some reason, these things seemed wholly achievable in my mind.

This dreamer and idealist wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be famous.

And I suppose the genesis of what drove those ambitions was when I won a regional pageant in Saskatchewan and went on to compete in the Miss Teen Canada pageant in 1983.

When my mom remarried, we had settled in Nipawin, Saskatchewan when I was in grade six. It was there I’d finally found the “home”town I’d been craving all my life. I developed friendships. Lifelong ones.

I began to test the waters on who I was or at least who I thought I was. And while my hometown (Nipawin) still warms my heart, I suppose I was not much different than other 18-year-old pageant queens. I could hardly wait to get out of my hometown and move to the big city of Saskatoon.

SMALL TOWN GIRL, BIG CITY: Life was good. I started dating a nice young farm boy from Delisle, Saskatchewan soon after I arrived in Saskatoon. My experience in pageants lead me to modeling and acting. I joined a theater group and found a good agent in Saskatoon.

The next couple of years whizzed by at a rapid pace. By the time I was 19, I’d dropped out of university, strutted the runway in New York City, had won awards in a North American acting competitions, and auditioned in front of the casting agents for a well-known soap opera. My identity was wholly wrapped up in how I looked and, most certainly, not in my intellect. What I could do to contribute to society in a meaningful way was the least of my worries.

In late 1985, I auditioned for and was given the opportunity to take a lead role in a musical show for Expo 86 (Vancouver, BC). That was exciting. It seemed that all my dreams were coming true.But we all know that life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Because that same week that I got that role, I also found out I was pregnant.

I wasn’t devastated. I was willing to give up my ambitions for family stability and that elusive white picket fence. We were optimistic, that farm boy and me. We planned our shot-gun wedding and happily embraced what lay ahead.

We were incredibly broke but rich with optimism!

But our optimism was short-lived. Only a few months after the wedding, we were involved in a serious car accident…

A Girl Least Likely, Part II, Part III, Part IV

The power of storytelling…

human mind

  • Humans love stories
  • We are living in an era of diminished attention spans triggered by the rise of social media
  • The storytelling device can be an important tool for science communicators

Ah… the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story?

The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization.  They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).

The human brain LOVES stories!

Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life.  We read them, we listen to them, we tell and re-tell them and we watch them (thank you, Hollywood). Stories – the good ones – have “stickability”.

Enter the fascinating work of Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book The Love Molecule. Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the  ‘neuroscience of the narrative’.  According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust.  Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin (there are others too). The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy.  Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.


Storytelling in the “Post-Literate” Era

While we human animals still love stories, our consumption of stories (and associated behaviors) has evolved over time. Our feet are now firmly entrenched in the “Post-Literate Era” and an age of rapidly diminishing attention spans:            



“The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th Century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents’ generation, to web pages that are granted 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant, and ultimately to Twitter’s 140-character limit.” Killianbranding (2015)

The cognitive muscles that allow us to follow a story, complete a task or to learn and create are weakening. In fact, of the people that clicked on and started reading this blog entry, most only have read a third of the preceding  text and several others have already moved onto things beyond this website.

The storytelling device and science communication

How we connect and interact as human beings has fundamentally changed with the introduction of the Internet.  We no longer share our stories on cave walls. We do it on the fast-moving train of social media.  Selfies and sound-bytes have become the proxy for social interaction and exchange.  This has implications for science communication. Here’s the problem. Science is complex. Explaining science in absolutes runs counter to the culture (and methods) of science itself.  Added to that, how we traditionally communicate the science is not how people want to hear about the science.


For example, if we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with (too many) facts or talking points, only the language processing part of our brain gets activated – the part where we translate words into meaning. Other than the unfortunate side effect of lulling a few people into peaceful slumber, nothing else happens beyond that particular decoding process.

Convey your message through a story format, however, and things transform considerably.  Not only is the language processing part of the brain activated, but other areas as well; including those parts that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events of the story first-hand (Gonzales et al 2006)!

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life…”  “Your Brain on Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul, New York Times (March 17, 2012)

As scientists and science communicators, if we want to capture and retain the attention of our audience, we need to lead with the narrative. The process is more of an art than a science. The personality (likeability) of the storyteller comes into play, of course.  How the story is told matters a great deal as well.  Employing metaphors in an artful way can stimulate an audience’s senses; what brains see, hear, smell, taste and feel.


Stories are powerful communicators. A successful story will draw us in so far that, as Paul Zak states, we will find ourselves mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the storyteller or the character.  The storytelling device is an important tool for the science communicator. In this world where we strive for immediate gratification, a science communicator needs to anchor new symbols around science. We need to create pictures with our words. In doing so, we transform facts and information into meaningful messages that stimulate the human brain and appeal to human values.

Who are your favorite (most effective) science communicators?

[This blog entry summarizes part of a seminar I gave at the University of California Davis on June 3rd, 2015, entitled: The Brave New World of Public Outreach: understanding human behavior, public opinion and the challenges for science communication. Thank you to the staff, faculty and students at the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for the kind invitation to present and engage in thoughtful discussion.]

Select References/Resources:

Canadian Reality TV: a ‘storytelling’ avenue for ag, eh!

June 16, 2011

Misperceptions are pervasive around the agricultural industry and with agricultural practices.  We live in a world where the urban population is rapidly growing while that of the rural is dwindling.  As a society, we seem to be losing touch with our pioneering heritage and have become largely disconnected from our ‘rural roots’.  The advent of new agricultural technologies, including the introduction of genetically modified crop varieties, has created new opportunities for modern farming practice. However, these developments have also represented the rise of the agri-cynical ‘foodies’. The agriculture community now not only has to deal with the volatility of world trade markets and the weather, but also with the ‘urban armchair foodie-quarterback’ who often presumes a level of ag expertise and knowledge and often without ever even having set foot on a farm.

The pervasive question for ‘ag-vocates’ then becomes how do we reach this consumer? How do we change perceptions? I draw on a recent blog entry by Michele Payn-Knoper (Gate to Plate), a noted ag consultant in social media, where she poses this (related) question and challenges ag-vocates:

“…[W]hen was the last time you truly made an effort to relate on human terms instead of ag terms?”

How do we put a human face to agriculture? Well, there are great strides being made by many ranchers and producers. They are all doing their part to ‘tell the agriculture story’ by leveraging social media tools through blogging, Twittering and Facebook. Personally, through Twitter, I have had the pleasure of connecting with the likes of @katpinke @JeffFowle @ShaunHaney @KMRivard @cowartandmore @wifeofadairyman @4GFarms @JPlovesCotton @waynekblack @agridome – the list goes on and on… Needless to say, I have learned a great deal from these folks through the information they pass along via Twitter and other online tools such as YouTube, personal blogs and Facebook.

It is evident that online social media has become an important part of the storytelling process.  But what of television? I mean, what better way to put a human face to agriculture than through reality TV?

“Dust Up” is a new reality reality show and is touted as ‘one rowdy rural ride through the world of crop dusting’.  For almost a hundred years, Canadians have used aircraft as aids in the protection of field crops, orchards, and forests from damage caused by insects and pests, fungi, fire and even frost.  The first known aerial application of agricultural materials was by a Kiwi named John Chaytor. In 1906, Chaytor spread seed over a swamped valley floor in New Zealand, using – of all things – a hot air balloon.  Over the past several decades, things have evolved considerably in terms of aerial mechanics – from fixed-wing aircraft in the early part of the century to the use of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, post-WWII.

“Dust Up” premiered in early June on History Television and it just happens to be filmed on location in my hometown area of Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Canada (Go Bears!) This ag story revolves around three highly competitive aerial crop dusters, two – of which – are father and son (Bud and Brennan Jardine). In the air, these ‘aerial cowboys’ “…buzz inches above the fields – dodging trees and telephone wires – to deliver their payloads…” (Shaw Media Blog) while on the ground they entertain the “Dust Up” audience with family feuds, crisis management and survival strategies.  Shannon Jardine, daughter/sister and the show’s executive producer, appears to have hit the mark with this one – both in recognizing a ‘good story’ and in encouraging her family members to tell it in such a public way. This accomplished actor/producer has come a long way from the shy slip of a girl that I remember!

I have to compliment the “Dust Up” producers, publicists and principals.  They appear to have launched an excellent publicity campaign to promote the program and to raise its visibility. And they have effectively leveraged social media to accomplish this, connecting to viewers through Facebook, YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/DustUpTelevision) and Twitter (@DustUpTV). TV and social media are highly complementary in this case – you betcha

No matter where you farm in the world, ag-vocates all speak the same language – – – agriculture! Pesticides and fungicides play an important role in managing crops and in sustaining our food supply. The practice of aerial spraying represents a cost effective and timely way in which to protect our crops.  So, for a little drama in the sky and a whole lot on the ground – and relating ag on human terms – check out “Dust Up”! You won’t be disappointed!

“So far, the Spray Gods are on my side…” “Maverick” Brennan Jardine, Crop Duster.

“Dust Up” is produced by Paperny Films and Prairie Threat Entertainment in association with Shaw  Media and is televised Thursday evenings on History Television. Episodes of “Dust Up” can also be viewed online at: http://www.history.ca/video/default.aspx?releasePID=e_O2LOaF3eglAsFQHS7_RE_Am6YVYFYp

Want to meet some more ag storytellers? Michele Payn-Knoper provides a list of farm/ranchs blogs, ag-vocates, and other ag references: http://www.causematters.com/ag-resources/.  



Estey, Ralph H. (2004). “Canadian use of aircraft for plant protection.” Phytoprotection. 85 (1). Pps: 7 – 12.

Globe and Mail. (2011). “Five Shows worth Watching.” (2011). Thursday, June 9. Available online at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/television/tv-photos/tv-five-shows-worth-watching-tonight-june-9/article2052335/

McCoy, Heath. (2011). “The Hazardous World of Crop Dusting.” Star Phoenix. June 2. Available online at: http://www.thestarphoenix.com/news/todays-paper/hazardous+world+crop+dusting/4878762/story.html

Payn-Knoper, Michele. (2011). “I eat. You farm. So what?” Michele Payn-Knoper’s Gate to Plate Blog. Available online at: http://www.causematters.com/advocacy/i-eat-you-farm-so-what/

Shaw Media Blog. (2011). “New series Dust Up premieres on History Television in June.” Available online at: http://www.throng.ca/dust/new-series-dust-premieres-history-television-june