Minnesota Soybean Business

Right ‘Place,’ right time: New FSA executive director a familiar figure in MN agriculture

May-June 2022

From small town to big city, Whitney Place has put her boots on the ground to help Minnesota farmers.

Originally from Okabena in southwest Minnesota, Place grew up in town, not on the farm. However, she was surrounded by corn fields in her backyard and always found herself enjoying her grandparents’ farm, where her father still grows corn and soybeans.

During high school, Place was involved in FFA and cultivated an interest in plants, leading her to attend the University of Minnesota to study plant science.

“I was going to be a plant breeder just like Norman Borlaug,” Place said. “Then I got there, and I worked on an oat breeding project for a while as a student worker, and I decided that research wasn’t going to be my path for everyday life.”

After deciding she no longer wanted to pursue plant research, Place found an interest in her issue-based coursework, specifically environmental issues.

This path led her to an internship with the National Farmers Union, where she decided agriculture policy was the direction to take. Place studied at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and earned a degree in environmental policy, which led her to start a decade-long career with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture across both the Dayton and Walz administrations.

“They really welcomed me in, and I just learned so much from all the different experts in the agency,” Place said. “Our staff really care about the community and about the issues, and that is kind of how I got my foot in the door.”

Place has built many relationships along her journey at MDA. During nearly a decade working together, she developed a close bond with current MDA Deputy Commissioner Andrea Vaubel.

Whitney Place (third to right) spent a decade with MDA, where she formed a close bond with Deputy Commissioner Andrea Vaubel (far right). While at MDA, Place helped oversee the department’s Ag Water Quality Certification Program.

“I think one of the great things about Whitney is she has a great energy,” Vaubel said. “She’s really passionate about this work, and she’s also willing to speak up about how she feels about things, even if it’s not the most popular. She’s just really thoughtful and has a strong ag background.”

Price also fostered connections with state commodity leaders, including Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) Executive Director Joe Smentek, whose background in state politics dates back more than 20 years.

“Joe has been a mentor of mine,” Place said. “He is someone I can always call and bounce ideas off of.”

Place appreciated MSGA’s efforts in proactively advocating for its policy priorities, including promoting MDA’s Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP), which Place helped oversee at MDA. Though MSGA and MDA are sometimes on opposite ends of issues, both groups approach their differences with respect.

“I think the Soybean Growers have a good, forward-thinking approach and I am pleased with what they are doing with conservation,” Place said. “Sometimes we don’t always agree, but we can have good conversations to work through issues.”

Smentek commended Place for networking with growers from every corner of the state.

“We have had a great working relationship with Whitney during her time with MDA,” Smentek said. “She has built strong relationships with soybean farmers across the state, and we look forward to working with her more in her new position.”

‘The new challenge’

After 10 years with MDA, Place was ready for the next step.

Earlier in 2022, President Biden’s administration appointed Place to serve as executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) Minnesota office.

“I was really sad to leave MDA and excited for the new challenge at FSA,” Place said.

Place complimented the team at MDA, including Vaubel and Commissioner Thom Petersen for always creating a positive work environment and being supportive.

“I want to thank Whitney for her decade of service here at the MDA and for her dedication to agriculture,” Commissioner Petersen said. “She has been a valuable member of our team and I look forward to continuing to work with her at the FSA on issues and policies affecting farmers in our state.”

Vaubel commended her friend and longtime colleague for embracing her new challenge.

“Thom and I said, ‘You would rock this, you would be amazing.’ I know it was nerve-wracking for her putting herself out there, interviewing with U.S. senators,” Vaubel said. “It can be scary stuff, but she brings an energy and freshness to this position.”

As executive director, Place wants to do her part in creating a more inclusive environment at FSA.

“I want to make sure that agriculture, specifically FSA programs, are accessible to everyone and, historically, USDA has had some challenges with underserved groups,” she said. “I think our staff does an amazing job delivering programs, but sometimes we need to look at things in a little different way to make sure we are being accessible.”

Coming from an environmental\ background, Place has conservation on her mind. She wants to continue promoting conservation efforts and to maintain programs like the MAWQCP that are workable and beneficial for both farmers’ and their operations.

Her last goal involves growth and bringing agriculture into the next era while still maintaining stability.

“In agriculture we are going to be facing this turnover in staff from retirements,” she said. “It is going to be important to work through and retain the next generation of agricultural leaders at that county level, the regional level and at our state office level.”

Place is excited to work on her goals and continue to grow and improve FSA efforts. “It’s where the rubber hits the road in our county offices when we are implementing these programs that we have these national conversations about,” she said, “but it is really the work of the boots on the ground and connecting those farmers to those programs, and I’m excited about that.”

Conquering self-doubts

As a female leader in agriculture, Place encourages young women to stay self-assured.

“I remember when I was a legislative director, and I would have to testify at the legislature and it’s super scary when you are first doing it,” she said. “However, former MDA Commissioner Dave Frederickson would always tell me, ‘You are the smartest person in the room on this topic. Have confidence in it. You know everything about this topic. No one else does.’”

Vaubel, who joined MDA in 2013, said she and Place have counseled each

other on navigating a largely male-centric industry.

“Being young women working in agriculture, we gave each other advice and talked through issues that arose,” Vaubel said. “Whitney thinks about things in a different way and helped me broaden my thoughts on a lot of iissues.”


Please add me to the Soybean Business Magazine list: