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Novice writer/Topeka horticulturist wins national column-writing award


When Jamie Hancock decided to enter a Kansas writing contest, she had no reason to expect she'd end up a state, regional and national winner--the best of the best for 2008-09.

Hancock had been producing a weekly gardening column for Topeka's daily newspaper for just three months. She knew her competition would include people who'd been writing for newspapers for decades.

Worsening her odds as a contestant, the column was the first professional writing Hancock had ever tried. She had 17 years of teaching experience prior to starting work as a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension, but no professional writing experience. Besides, she and her husband, Rick, were the parents of a young man and woman in their final year at Wichita State University. For Momma Hancock, taking Composition 101 in college wasn't exactly a recent memory.

Nonetheless, after several months last year of adjusting to her new position as a horticulture agent in the Shawnee County Extension office, Hancock had finally settled down in front of a computer.

From then through the end of 2008, she'd quickly learned that column writing requires in-depth fact-finding forays into a different topic every week--not to mention the writing itself. To this day, she's still amazed by how much time that can take. Sometimes she feels like a foreign (science) language translator.

But, she'd also stuck to her self-defined goal: To make timely, research-based horticulture as interesting and easy to understand as good conversation. Along the way, she'd also realized something surprising. She actually enjoyed this part of her job.

Hancock entered the state contest only because she wanted feedback on how to improve. So, as required, she selected two of her favorite 2008-09 columns to submit: "New Year's Resolutions I Will Never Keep" and "War of the Roses." She also provided clippings to prove the Topeka Capital-Journal had actually printed them.

That took grit--and not just for her being a "newbie" to the writing field. The division she entered is part of a communications contest fielded each year for members of the Kansas Association of County Agricultural Agents. The KACAA is one of the professional associations for K-State Research and Extension staff. It has hundreds of members, and its contest judges are always agricultural journalism professionals.

Hancock belonged to the association, but she hadn't met many people yet and certainly was no "good ol' aggie." She had been teaching horticulture for years, so knew a lot more about trees and flowers than wheat and corn. She'd joined the KACAA simply because the state's scattering of Extension horticulturists have no professional association of their own.

Even so, Hancock saw no reason to be nervous after sending off her entry. She just wanted feedback.

She was too busy to worry anyway. Hancock oversees the county's Master Gardener program and an array of demonstration gardens, plus answers questions and develops programs and educational materials for county residents. At that time, rafts of Shawnee Countians were looking forward to spring gardening.

In fact, the horticulturist had almost forgotten about the contest when she was notified that she'd won the year's KACAA column-writing award.

At the same time, a KCAA officer reassured Hancock that she'd finally get feedback soon. State-winning agriculture agent communicators are automatic entries in their association's nearest regional contest. For Kansans, that means the competition in the North Central Region, which also includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin.

In the end, however, Hancock again got more praise than critique. She won the North Central contest and then the NACAA contest designed to determine the nation's best from among each year's four regional winners. She basically was reduced to saying, "Wow."

Hancock's official recognition will come in September, when thousands of NACAA members gather for their annual meeting and professional improvement conference in Portland, Ore. On some level, though, Hancock suspects she's already received an even bigger honor.

"I was at the Master Gardener booth during Topeka's Lawn and Garden Show when this lady dropped by, recognized me and said she reads my column," Hancock recalled. "Then she said, `The way you write makes me feel like I can do it--even a non-gardener like me.'"

For a non-writer who somehow became a columnist, that was high praise indeed.

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