Don't be afraid to tell the world what you're good at

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Even if you don’t recognize the name, you know Brent Zettl.

He’s the guy who grew medical marijuana in a mineshaft in Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Of course, it’s Zettl’s company, Prairie Plant Systems, that does the growing and, not surprisingly, became famous after winning a federal medical marijuana contract in 2000.

“It wasn’t just that we were growing medical marijuana for the government, but that we were doing it underground in a mine chamber,” recalls Zettl. “The media loved it. It had all the elements of a good story.”

If you operate a farm business such as seed cleaning, doing custom work, or selling local food, you should consider following in Zettl’s footsteps. Not by growing marijuana or doing something to attract national headlines, but by showing the world—or, more importantly, potential customers—what you’re good at.

“Along with the name recognition, you’re also getting the word out about your capabilities and competencies,” Zettl says about his brush with fame.

 “I can call the vice president of any pharmaceutical company and I know I’ll get a call back because they know who we are. Even if they’re only calling out of curiosity, it’s better than being an unknown because no one returns their calls.”

Zettl was an agronomy major at the University of Saskatchewan in 1988 when he came across a paper about the new science of plant tissue micropropagation—cloning plants in a test tube. Prairie Plant Systems was created with the idea of propagating high-yielding, prairie-hardy saskatoon trees that farmers, beset by low grain prices at that time, would snap up as a more profitable alternative.

That didn’t happen, but Zettl wasn’t deterred. Having developed expertise in micropropagation and closed growing environments, he focused on the emerging field of bioengineering plants to produce pharmaceuticals. It’s a high-tech field with tremendous potential, but Zettl foresaw, correctly, that growing such plants in open-field environments was rife with biosecurity issues.

Closed indoor chambers were the alternative and Prairie Plant Systems was expert at that. But how does a small company from Saskatoon get known in a global business dominated by multinationals?

“I heard about the medical marijuana contract through the media, and it was a light-bulb moment for me,” says Zettl. “We needed something to prove that we could do what we said we could do in terms of making plants become mini-manufacturers of drugs. I knew this would have the profile to get the word out there.”

The medical marijuana contract came with an obvious risk of attracting ridicule, but Zettl was prepared. He's not averse to cracking jokes himself about running a grow-op and operating in “the other underground economy.”

But he also knew the media coverage would carry an underlying message: Prairie Plant Systems couldn’t have gotten the contract without meeting exacting specifications. In the pharmaceutical business that means having certified GMPs. That’s short for good manufacturing practices and involves standards so exacting they make “ISO certification seem like a walk in the park,” says Zettl.

“The goal of exposure is to show how you can add value for somebody else,” he says. “When you put it out there, you want potential customers to see how this might benefit them. I believe if a company does something exceptionally well, then somebody is going to want that product or service. And that’s true whether you’re making plant-made pharmaceuticals or manufacturing grain bins.”

So how would this work on a local scale?

Well, look around and you’ll see there are businesses boldly stating they offer the best service, prices, and selection. Others claim—call it boasting, if you like—that they offer something their competitors can’t match. They don’t need media coverage to get the word out. They make their claims in their ads, brochures, and to every potential customer they meet.

Of course, you have to be able to deliver on that claim, or people will be making jokes about you that aren’t funny at all. But if you can, why keep it a secret?

“Putting yourself in the spotlight is part of growing up as an organization and being confident,” says Zettl. “You want to be able to say to yourself, ‘We are innovative, we’re very good at what we do, and we want people to know that.’”

This strategy has propelled Prairie Plant Systems ( into the plant-made pharmaceutical business. It now employs 50 people in Saskatoon, has a U.S. subsidiary, and, among other initiatives, has created a legume that produces adenosine deaminase (used to treat compromised immune systems, the so-called bubble boy disease). 

If you run a superior business, it’s going to grow regardless. But shining a light on what you do can make that happen a lot more quickly.

(Archived columns from this series can be found at Farm Credit Canada enables business management skill development through resources such as this column, and information and learning events available across Canada.)




Organizations: University of Saskatchewan, Farm Credit Canada

Geographic location: Flin Flon, Manitoba, Saskatoon U.S. Canada

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Recent comments

  • Mike Afka
    January 05, 2012 - 10:16

    Too bad Brent's pot is world famous as being ground up garbage even the Canadian approved medical cannabis patients won't buy, or buy once and throw out. For such an expert, you'd think they would know which part of the cannabis plant patients want to consume. When a wood-chipper is your packaging method, you might be doing it wrong.