ASTA Chair Passing the Torch

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Risa Demasi looks back on her time as the first female chair of the American Seed Trade Association.

Risa Demasi is wrapping up her term as chair of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). As the first woman to lead the board of the 133-year-old organization, she’s preparing to hand the reins off to a new chairperson, and in doing so will pass on some valuable lessons that she learned while at the helm.

“Talk about learning a lot. I’ve really grown professionally,” the 50-year-old partner at Grassland Oregon says. “ASTA is in a good position now. The board is engaged and committed, and it’s a tremendous honor to serve with some of the greatest leaders and thinkers of our industry.”

Demasi took the helm as chair at a crucial time for ASTA, when the organization was gearing up to move into a new era in the seed industry — one marked by exciting new technology and an increasingly connected world. Her immediate goal was to speak with all incoming regional vice presidents, division and committee chairs, directors at large, U.S. regional and Canadian and Mexican representatives, and ASTA senior staff. And she wanted to do it in the first 100 days of her time as chair.

She calls them her “hundred-day calls”.

“Those first calls were really instrumental for me to get a finger on the pulse of what everyone was thinking and allowed us to open a deeper dialogue than we may have had otherwise. It was clear to me right off the bat that we all want the best for the industry, to make sure it’s positioned well, and to bring everyone up to a top level of influence,” she says.

“Those calls were key in understanding what I needed to do and know that we were all on the same page. We used the results of those calls as we opened both of our executive committee meetings. It was incredibly valuable.”

For Demasi, the fact that ASTA was in such a good place when she became chair made her job all the more important, she says. She notes that ASTA board members and staff are active within the industry, and are working to ensure a healthier seed industry for everyone.

“Our director of state government affairs, Pat Miller, has been to every U.S. state capitol on our behalf. He continues to monitor every bill or initiative that may affect our industry and keeps us abreast of new developments,” she notes.

Tim Johnson of Illinois Foundation Seeds, who is on ASTA’s executive committee, has also recently served as president of the International Seed Federation. “The world is smaller all the time. We’re committed to taking a leadership role on critical issues in international organizations that influence the seed industry,” Demasi says.

She adds that Ric Dunkle, ASTA’s senior director for seed health and trade, is well respected by government agencies around the world and continues to work with them to ensure seed is able to move efficiently across borders and eliminate non science-based barriers.

“You could likely name any country and Ric will have participated in phytosanitary regulations or conversations there,” Demasi says.

“When things are working as well as they are, that’s the best time to review. That’s a real position of strength. We have such a rich and harmonious diverseness, which is our strength. Not only do we ensure every voice is heard, we want everyone to see themselves as a part of the organization,” she says.

Reaching Out

Her second goal was to establish benchmarks and metrics to measure ASTA’s progress in executing its five-year strategic plan, especially in regard to reaching out and improving communication — between sectors, with federal and state governments, among generations, within the association and to the public.

The feedback she received fell into five areas: Cross-sector communication, advocacy, inter-generational communication, internal communication and public outreach.

“While other organizations inside and outside of agriculture are just becoming aware that communication is critical, ASTA is ahead of the curve. One of our biggest challenges is communicating how innovations such as new breeding techniques are contributing to our quality of life,” she says. “People are lining up to get the latest iPhone, but advancements in agriculture aren’t viewed in the same light. We need to change that.”

ASTA recently launched a brand new website, just one of its efforts to capture attention and ensure the organization is able to better reach out to a wider, younger audience.

“When we meet people where they are, instead of just responding to fears, we can give them confidence, whether it’s organic products or new breeding techniques.”

Legacy

ASTA has been working on new communications tools it plans to unveil in the next few months. It’s those tools that will help build on the legacy Demasi leaves as she passes the torch to a new chair — Mark Herrmann of AgReliant Genetics, who is currently vice chair. Second vice chair Tracy Tally will move into the position of vice-chair.

“Risa brought up communication as a major issue, and it just so happens it coincides with what the ASTA board has been working on for a few years now,” says Tally, owner of Texas-based Justin Seed Co. “I think that will be a big part of her legacy — continued communication, reaching out and understanding the need to communicate, to reach out to the membership and have one-on-one conversations with them.”

Tally says Demasi had a knack not just for helping ASTA communicate better as an organization, but for helping individual board members better communicate with one another in situations where a collective mentality can sometimes take over.

“She always made the situation relaxed and allowed people to open up and discuss their concerns,” he says. “With her board meetings, we typically started off as a whole board, but then we had breakout sessions to allow us to take a very serious topic and situation and talk about it in small groups. Then we’d bring it back to the whole group. That was hugely helpful in fostering a sense of individuality in that group setting, which is very important.”

Demasi says it’s crucial to her that board members feel like they have a say, which allows members to stay positive and work for the benefit of the organization as a whole.

“Too often people get caught up looking at differences, making it easy to get sidetracked. When you focus on what you have in common, you find the glue that holds you together and you find the path forward. You can accomplish anything you set out to,” she says.

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