Chris McDowell’s long history in the grass seed industry has taught her and her two daughters that Oregon is fertile ground for more women in agriculture.
McDowell has been a part of the mid-Willamette Valley’s grass seed production operations for nearly 40 years, she said, while daughter Marissa Donahue transitioned from production into turf grass sales in 2008.
“We’d been working together long enough and she had been in the industry for a long time and had all this knowledge and relationships, which was essential,” Donahue said. “But we work together well, which can be considered a big advantage.”
In 2014, McDowell, Donahue and her other daughter, Mandi Mack, decided to toss the dice and start their own business, which they called Vista Seed Partners.
“We saw the need in the industry of a real customer-based seed company,” McDowell said. “The timing was right in 2014, so we just said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Today, Vista markets high-performance grass seed varieties and blends for professional landscapes (Central Park in New York City is a client), sports turf, golf courses and sod applications. Turfgrass products include Bermudagrass, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass and others.
Forage products are also developed at Vista, including tall fescue and orchardgrass.
The three women co-owners title themselves as “sales” staff, though each has significant experience in the field.
Donahue has served on the board of the Oregon Grass Seed Advisory Council and is currently on the board of the Independent Turf and Ornamental Distributors Association.
Mack held a sales and marketing role for a large multinational turf grass company for more than a dozen years before Vista Seed Partners was formed. She commutes from Salem to Vista’s Shedd, Ore., headquarters.
McDowell is a turfgrass industry story by herself, though.
“Back when I was first doing seed sales in the early 1980s there were probably only three or four women doing what I was doing,” McDowell said. “It was kind of a Good Ole Boys Club for a long, long time.
“But things changed,” she said, “and I got involved in the Oregon Seed Trade Association, and I became the first woman president of the Oregon Seed Council.”
McDowell also has chaired the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program board and on the American Seed TradeTrade Association’s Lawn Seed Division.
“I think that there’s this misconception that women are in competition with one another,” Donahue said. “But in my experience, I’ve not felt that in this industry, where people are nothing but supportive.”