USDA Announces Additional Farm Service Agency and Rural Development State Directors

Jan 19, 2022

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Today, President Joe Biden announced his intent to appoint eight U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regional positions, including five Farm Service Agency (FSA) State Executive Directors and three Rural Development (RD) State Directors.

“As we work to build a better America, we need talented and experienced staff working in our state offices,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We are thrilled to welcome these dedicated individuals to USDA at such an important time in the Biden-Harris administration.”

FSA State Executive Directors oversee Farm Service Agency operations and agricultural policy implementation in the state. Each State Executive Director works with the State Committee to administer FSA programs and County office operations, develops and maintains stakeholder relationships with customers and other agencies and governments.

RD State Directors serve as the chief executive officer of Rural Development in the states and territories and are tasked with carrying out the mission of Rural Development to the benefit of everyone in rural America. In conjunction with the guidance and support of the National Office, State Directors are responsible for promoting the mission and strategic goals of Rural Development and provide key leadership to develop and support a productive, diverse, and inclusive state workforce.

Farm Service Agency:

Blong Xiong, FSA State Executive Director for California

Most recently, Blong Xiong served as the Executive Director for the Asian Business Institute & Resource Center. Elected in 2006, he served two terms as a Council Member for the City of Fresno, where he was the first elected Hmong Council Member in the State of California and the first Asian Council Member in the City of Fresno. Xiong has also served as the Deputy Director for The Fresno Center, formerly known as the Fresno Center for New Americans. Additionally, he sat on several commissions and boards: the Asian Pacific Islander Commission, the California Volunteer Commission, the Insurance Diversity Board and the Valley Small Business Development Corp. Xiong holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Marian College of Fond du Lac, and a master’s degree in Business Administration from National University.

Matt Gellings, FSA State Executive Director for Idaho

Matt Gellings has served on Idaho’s FSA State Committee for twelve years. He has served as chairman of the Leadership Idaho Agriculture Board of Trustees, the president of the Eastern Idaho Ag Hall of Fame, and the president of the Bonneville County Grain Producers Association. A fourth-generation farmer, Gellings produces alfalfa, wheat, malt barley and potatoes at his farm in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He has also maintained a cattle operation for 26 years.

Whitney Place, FSA State Executive Director for Minnesota

Whitney Place most recently served as the Assistant Commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). She had worked for MDA since 2012 in the roles of Director of Legislative Affairs, Assistant to the Commissioner, and Project Coordinator for the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. Place earned a B.S. in Applied Plant Science and an M.S. in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy from the University of Minnesota.

Heidi Secord, FSA State Executive Director for Pennsylvania

Heidi Secord has over 26 years of farming and regenerative agriculture experience as the owner of the Josie Porter Farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. She currently serves as a farmer member on the Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission, which she was appointed to by Governor Tom Wolf. Secord previously served as the State President for the Pennsylvania Farmers Union and sat on the National Farmers Union Board of Directors. She has engaged in agricultural policy committee work with multiple organizations, including PASA Sustainable Agriculture Board, Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations (PSCFO), All Together Now Pennsylvania, and the Monroe County Conservation District. Earlier in her career, Secord served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years in Mali and Lesotho. She graduated with a degree in Business Management from the University of Rhode Island.

Dr. Ronald Howell, Jr., FSA State Executive Director for Virginia

Most recently, Dr. Ronald Howell, Jr. served as the Director of Operations and Management in the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University. He previously served as the Special Assistant and Advisor for Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives to the Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry in the Offices of Governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam. Howell received his B.S. in Agriculture Business and Economics from Virginia State University in 2009 and earned a master's degree from Virginia Tech in Agricultural and Life Sciences in 2012. In 2021, he received his doctorate degree in P-20 Education and Community Leadership with a focus in Agriculture Education from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. Howell resides in Spring Grove, Virginia.

Rural Development:

Lakeisha Hood, RD State Director for Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands

Most recently, Lakeisha Hood served as the Director of the Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). Prior to joining FDACS, she served as a legislative assistant in the Florida State Senate. A graduate of Alabama State University, Lakeisha obtained her Master of Education degree from Auburn University at Montgomery and has earned law degrees from North Carolina Central University School of Law and the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. Lakeisha currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida and is a licensed member of the State Bar of Georgia.

Rudy Soto, RD State Director for Idaho

Born and raised in Nampa, Idaho, Rudy Soto is a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation and the son of a farmworker. Most recently, he worked for Western Leaders Network, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization of local and tribal elected officials across the Interior West focused on protecting public lands, water and air. Soto previously served as a legislative staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and covered energy, environment, agriculture, education, transportation, and tribal issues as part of his portfolio. He is a proud veteran of the United States Army National Guard and received his bachelor's degree from Portland State University.

Helen Price Johnson, RD State Director for Washington

A third-generation small business owner, Helen Price Johnson concluded three terms on the Island County Commission in 2021. She is a past president of the Washington State Association of Counties, a two-term member of the South Whidbey School Board and a former member of the Board of Directors of the Whidbey Community Foundation. In these roles, she worked statewide advocating for small towns, small businesses and rural lands.

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Why Mentoring the Young Stars of Plant Science is About More Than Just Plant Breeding

Video: Why Mentoring the Young Stars of Plant Science is About More Than Just Plant Breeding

Forward-thinking organizations help bring young researchers together each year to network with a who’s who of the industry. Your organization can be one of them. If you’ve worked at all in intellectual property (IP), the names James Weatherly has probably come across your desk at some point in time. An attorneys at law specializing in IP, he founded Weatherly IP Solutions in 2020. He’s seen a need in the industry: a need for better IP understanding and a need for people to procure and defend IP.

It’s a big reason why Weatherly IP Solutions sponsors the Borlaug Scholarship, founded by legendary corn breeder Donn Cummings. The program strengthens the plant breeding profession by helping support attendance of future leaders at the National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB) annual meeting.

The NAPB annual meeting is a large annual conference that brings together a who’s who of the plant breeding world. Each year, a variety of sponsors help bring a contingent of young Borlaug Scholars to the conference where they present their work and get a better idea of what the plant breeding profession is all about.

“With intellectual property, you’re dealing with new innovations. In agriculture, new innovations are coming at us all the time. Having good people around you that understand those technologies is always something we’re looking for,” Weatherly says.

He notes that while the scholarship is often associated with up-and-coming young plant breeders, he says the bright young people who are found within the program’s orbit have a variety of interests with many possible uses within the industry.

“Not everybody wants to be a plant breeder, and as a sponsor I’m able to interact with students who may want to take that experience they’ve gained in plant breeding and maybe go into the field of law. I’ve actually met a few students at various NAPB meetings who are interested in IP. So it’s a great opportunity for us to possibly connect with somebody who may be interested in working in our field.”

Weatherly was introduced to the scholarship in the summer of 2018 through Andy LaVigne, president of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). That was the first year ASTA sponsored the scholarship, and Weatherly was executive director of the Seed Innovation Protection Alliance (SIPA) at the time. SIPA was founded by ASTA to create a unified and consistent voice for education and best practices around IP protection and its value to our society.

When Weatherly founded Weatherly IP Solutions in 2020, he saw big value in continuing to sponsor the scholarship under the Weatherly IP Solutions banner.

“It’s a great opportunity to network and meet people who may want to work with me in my field. It’s also an opportunity to get my name out there, get my firm’s name out there, to raise awareness about what my firm does. It’s not just about plant breeding; there’s a lot of opportunities here to interact with people who you may want to work with in the future in a variety of areas,” he adds.

There have been 48 Borlaug Scholars since 2018, and the scholarship is made possible through a roster of forward-thinking sponsors like Weatherly. Scholarship chair Allen Van Deynze of the University of California says the scholarship committee is actively looking for more to strengthen the program and further provide the industry with new talent.

“It’s a great way for organizations to recruit new people. We get so many applications each year, and it really becomes like splitting hairs when it comes to selecting who receives a scholarship. This scholarship attracts the brightest of the young talent out there,” Van Deynze says.