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A short history of the American Seed Trade Association

Source: American Seed Trade Association (ASTA)

The early years (1883-1908)

By 1883, as the business of growing and marketing seeds expanded, seedsmen meeting in Rochester, New York, decided to hold a large seed convention. Ethan Allan Chase, of Rochester, is credited with the original idea for the convention. Other strongly supportive members included B. K. Bliss and Peter Henderson (of New York), Joseph A. Bolgiano (of Maryland) and E. B. Clark, William Meggat and Richard A. Robbins (of Connecticut).

Once the idea was adopted, invitations went out to eedsmen across the country in May.

The response was so favorable that by the next month, June 12 to 14, a group of 35 men representing 33 seed trade firms - mainly those concerned with vegetable seeds - gathered for the first assemblage of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). The initial meeting was held in New York City at the Gilsey House, the first hotel in that city to offer telephone service to guests.

The group discussed three major topics of eminent concern to seedsmen of the time: protection against unjust claims for damages; postage on seeds; and seed tariffs.

The introductory passage of ASTA's 1883 official record states, "We desire to enroll every seedsman from Maine to California, and respectfully invite you to apply for admission."

The founding members convened the group to bring together seedsmen spread over "the geographical limits of this mighty continent" who remained "unacquainted with those with whom they do business."

The records from that initial meeting express a hope that the fledgling association "will at once become just what it ought to be, what it is intended to be - a national organization."
 

Inaugural Convention
This newspaper article highlighting the first day of the inaugural ASTA Annual Convention, held in New York City on June 13, 1883, was published in the The New York Daily Tribune.

"A National Association of Seedsmen"

Horticultural Hall, at Twenty-eighth St. and Broadway, yesterday contained a number of seedsmen from various parts of the country, called together to form a national association. Last December, at the instance of out-of-town seedsmen, the call was issued by a number of the leading seed firms of this city. Among those present were R.A. Robbins and William Meggat, of Wethersfield, Conn., James Vick, C.W. Crossman, John A. Stewart and E.A. Chase, of Rochester, Alfred Clant, of St. Louis and M. Bolgiano of Baltimore. It was the first meeting of the kind ever held in this country. The session began in the forenoon, with James Y. Murkland as temporary chairman, B.K. Bliss, James Reid, A. Parker, E.A. Chase, and James Vick as the committee on organization, and Alfred Henderson as temporary secretary. A permanent organization was effected by the election of R.A. Robbins, chairman; J.Y. Murkland, secretary and treasurer.

The name of "The American Seed Trade Association" was adopted. A resolution was offered declaring that the postage on seeds should be reduced from 16 cents a pound to 4 cents, and it was proposed to send a committee to Washington to see the Postmaster General and others about the matter. No conclusion was arrived at when the convention adjourned until today. The questions to be discussed will be postage on seeds, tariff on seeds, and on unjust claims for damage made by consumers or purchasers of seeds.

Tomorrow afternoon the visitors will be given an excursion by the New-York members. The steamer Magenta will start from the foot of West Twenty-first St. at 2 p.m. and will sail up the Hudson, under the Brooklyn Bridge and down the Bay. The party will return to the city about 8 p.m.

Tender Shoots (1908 - 1933)

"Heading into the 20th century, the major concerns facing American seed companies were largely the same as those in the 1800s: seed legislation, tariff issues, postal laws, free seed distribution by the government and the disclaimer. However, the world war presented seed companies with additional problems. After the United States entered the conflict in April 1917, government war councils in each state took steps to ensure greater food production. At the 1917 convention, ASTA stressed the importance of cooperating with government war councils in order "to more fully meet the present emergency." ASTA's leadership and members demonstrated a strong sense of patriotism. They adopted the following resolution unanimously in 1917:

That the President of the United States and the Secretary of Agriculture be tendered the support of this Association in all reasonable measures designed to prosecute the war with the utmost vigor. We count ourselves fortunate to be able to do our full share in supplying men and money, but our greatest service may well be in maintaining, under extraordinary strain, the machinery of producing and the distributing of seeds, without which agriculture must fail. Because we realize in some measure the magnitude of the task to which our country is committed, we are the more earnest in pledging to it our entire resources.

ASTA member companies contributed to the Great War not just with resources and seeds, but also with lives. In 1918, out of the 223 member companies, 14 owners were serving in the military, 46 others had sons in the service, and 621 employees were in uniform."

Deepening Roots (1933 - 1958)

During World War II, many people migrated from rural areas to U.S. cities, where industrial jobs related to the war effort were readily available. But as the United States recovered from war, it became increasingly popular to move away from cities into the surrounding areas, which were neither rural nor urban, but suburban. In the postwar years, American citizens enjoyed economic success, in part because demand for goods from the United States, a country comparatively untouched by war, remained high. The growing popularity of suburbs and a suburban style of living in the United States - with the accompanying lawns, flowers, and gardens - created a much higher demand for seeds of this type. Business for lawn and garden seed companies soon boomed and in the early 1950s, ASTA established a special committee specifically committed to lawn and turf seed. By 1957, this committee had become the Lawn and Turfgrass Division. One curious result of the war was that in 1945, for the first time since its organization 63 years before, ASTA held no general annual meeting of its membership. Instead, in Chicago, from May 31 through June 2, the Executive Committee and other committees met. ASTA's records for that year do not include a report of the annual convention, just a Report of Activities, which states:

The reason for not holding a Summer meeting, or convention, was that Federal regulations prohibited the holding of conventions or other meetings with 50 or more persons in attendance. The maintenance of complete and uninterrupted activities, of course, required the holding of a meeting of the Association's Executive Committee and urgent war requirements of the industry made necessary several other Committee sessions in order that definite policies regarding the seed industry and the war effort might be thoroughly defined and considered.

Branching out (1958 - 1983)

By the 75th anniversary of the association, held in St. Louis, Mo., ASTA membership had reached 731 companies. This next chapter brought the arrival of a massive increase in food production referred to as the Green Revolution, as use of hybrid breeding techniques pioneered by Norman Borlaug, a Nobel laureate and later an ASTA convention speaker, were widely adopted, drastically changing the industry. With this widespread use of hybrids came issues surrounding intellectual property rights.

ASTA began to further expand its reach in order to coordinate efforts to address the new technology and the government regulations that came with them. The ASTA headquarters were relocated in 1959 to Washington, D.C. A stronger working relationship was forged with the Canadian Seed Trade Association, the Mexican Association of Seed, the International Seed Federation, and the host of regional seed associations that worked around the United States. In 1959, ASTA established the American Seed Research Foundation to promote scientific research in seeds, and in 1967, a partnership with the National Council of Commercial Plant Breeders was put in place.

The greatest legislative achievement of this era was the passing of the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, which protected breeders' rights on new seed varieties for 17 years from the date of issuance. ASTA would eventually add a permanent staff legislative position in 1980, and continued to diligently police later amendments to this crucial act.

Full blossom (1983 - 2008)

The Centennial Anniversary of ASTA was celebrated in San Francisco, California, at which the association could boast 55 standing committees, 20 liaison committees, seven divisions, and eight permanent staff. As ASTA headed into the 21st century, advances in science and technology reshaped the realms of plant breeding and seed marketing. The industry was forever changed with the advent of biotechnology in seed. ASTA appointed a Biotechnology Committee in 1985, which worked to unlock the "mysteries" of the budding scientific field for member companies with an educational program that discussed biotechnology's processes, applications, regulatory issues and the challenges to its widespread acceptance. As the world began in many ways, to feel smaller, international trade relations grew in importance. New laws affecting seed production and distribution were enacted as nations strove to find appropriate ways to manage and regulate innovations. ASTA participated at national and international levels, keeping its membership apprised of trade developments and providing educational opportunities, facilitating import and export of seeds and debating and establishing global policies and laws.

Meanwhile, ASTA was growing and modernizing. The ASTA office was outfitted with computers in 1986, followed later by the creation of its web site. In 1992, ASTA relocated to a new building in downtown Washington, D.C., the area where the association had been headquartered since 1960. Before 10 years had passed, ASTA moved again, to a still larger office located in the District's suburbs, in Alexandria, Virginia. Staff grew in number and the head of the staff office became known as President and CEO, beginning with Dick Crowder in 2003. Continuing to keep up with rapid changes in the seed business, ASTA made it a higher priority to prepare and involve the next generation of seed industry professionals and established the Future Seed Executives (FuSE) subcommittee within its standing Management Skills Committee to address topics relevant to those who had been in the seed industry for less than seven years.

 

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