ASTA provides an opportunity to boost leadership skills

Dave Armstrong
Dave Armstrong

For more information, see the Second Quarter issue of Seed Today.

Written by Dave Armstrong

Humans couldn’t survive without the seed industry. Yet, seed is small, with global industry revenues of about $25 billion dollars, or just 1% of global food system revenues.

But most of that food doesn’t happen without seed. This vast gap between the relatively modest economic value of seed and how it enables the global economy makes seed perhaps the world’s biggest little industry.

Seed Industry Distinctions

The seed industry is distinct in many ways compared to others, beginning with breeding.

Bringing new seed varieties to market is a decades-long endeavor, requiring immense patience and investments, with endless failures, as thousands of prospective varieties die in the nursery.

Plant breeding requires vision, too. Breeders, like great artists, often create entirely new things that no one was expecting or demanding, making epical changes in horticultural and agricultural markets.

Seed is the vessel for carrying vital biological software, and growing seed is a special type of farming, and a constant battle with nature. Weather, with extreme hourly and daily gyrations, and longer climate cycles, becoming ever more uncertain, threatens always to wipe out seed crops. Seed comes out of nature, but never without a struggle.

Seed people walk arm-in-arm with farmers, who are all about “ground truthing,” ground in this case being their fields, the earth. Farmers need to know that whatever they buy will work on the farm and increase yields.

Often regarded in surveys as the most trusted people in society, farmers earn that trust every day as stewards of the land and producers of the world’s food. Farmers know, no seed, no farming.

The global seed supply chain is like a vast, life-giving DNA strand circling the planet. From breeding to seed production, testing, packaging, and distribution, seed moves constantly around the world.

A living thing (that only appears to be dead), seed must be handled with great care. Teams are spread throughout world, communicating 24/7, with “boots on the ground” to develop and produce seed and get it to farmers.

Seed is politics. The USDA, the EPA, and the FDA, among many other federal and state agencies, have a hand in regulating seed. Seed can elicit strong opinions and positions from many quarters.

Among countries, seed is often used as a weapon in trade wars. Constant negotiations with governments go on to ensure the free movement of seed around the world, without which, global agriculture would grind to a halt.

The seed industry is a tribe of tribes, people working across numerous crop segments, each quite distinct from one another (alfalfa to zucchini), yet all are uniquely dedicated to what they do.

PhD scientists, agronomists, technicians of all kinds, sales, marketing, administrative and professional services experts, all engaged in producing seed that will germinate and make food and fiber.

Leadership Values and Traits

So, what traits and values do leaders need in this biggest little industry?

Humility is a key value of seed leaders, as seed is co-created with Mother Nature, who always gets the last word. To make seed is to confront awe, to recognize our dependence on the natural world, to be reminded one’s human frailty.

Patience and perseverance serve seed leaders well, given the years long product development cycles in seed – and many chances for nature to take her share of the harvest. If you can’t deal with failure, with setbacks due to causes out of your control, you will not be a successful leader in the seed industry.

Integrity is at the core of seed leadership, as the industry serves farmers to create the world’s food supply. You cannot BS a farmer. True seed leaders understand farmers (many are farmers), think like them and work to earn their trust (see humility). The end-to-end process of creating and distributing seed is enormously complex. Seed leaders must rigorously attend to detail and process. And they engage with those tribes working across many crops, functions, cultures, climates, and time zones.

Perhaps above all, seed leaders are defined by a sense of responsibility for the noble mission of creating a living product that feeds the world, and beautifies it, in the case of flower and turf seeds.

They work in an obscure industry (try explaining the seed business at a barbecue). In a global food system that depends entirely on seed, but often doesn’t acknowledge it, seed leaders embrace “leading from behind,” with humility, patience, integrity, responsibility, inclusiveness, and complexity management, among other traits and skills.

Leadership Summit. For those interested in honing their leadership skills, the ASTA Leadership Summit June 15-19 in Nashville, TN will be a great chance to learn about the many opportunities to grow as a leader in the world’s biggest little industry.

Dave Armstrong is 2023-2024 chair of ASTA, the American Seed Trade Association, Alexandria, VA (703-837-8140/ Armstrong is president/CEO of Sakata America Holding Company, Inc., Morgan Hill, CA (