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Stay Positive: ‘7 Lucky Thoughts’ on Ag Trade

USDA’s Ted McKinney urges farmers to think positively.

At the forefront of agricultural trade, Ted McKinney keeps the message simple and positive. The Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs spoke to a friendly audience recently at the Agri-Pulse “Harvesting Perspectives” summit in Washington, D.C. 

Before joining the USDA in a new position, McKinney was Indiana agriculture secretary, appointed by then-Governor Mike Pence. He spent 19 years with Dow AgroSciences and also worked 14 years with Elanco in the animal health division. McKinney earned a B.S. in Agricultural Economics from Purdue University.

During his March presentation, McKinney shared “7 Lucky Thoughts” on agricultural trade issues. In essence, seven reasons to stay positive during a time of such uncertainty in global trade for agriculture.

1. QUALITY COUNTS

Americans should never forget that the U.S. produces high-quality food and ag products that are safe and affordable and also are produced consistently in high volumes. That makes a difference, McKinney said.

“It is amazing to me,” McKinney said, “that when other countries are able to brand U.S. products on their shelves, it’s a fairly immediate run-up to buy those products.

“Never take for granted” the quality of our products, he said. “It’s real.”

2. TRADE CONFLICT

McKinney believes it is probably time that the U.S. address the unfair barriers across the globe that are sure to cause uncertainty and anxiety in American agriculture. “Yes, buckle up,” he said, continuing the day’s analogy of other speakers to strap on seatbelts for bumpy times in agricultural trade. McKinney was trying to be a calming influence: “You get to your destination just fine. You buckle up in your car ... We’re going to get to our destinations.”

McKinney stressed that farmers know adversity, strife, and trials through the uncertainties of production. “We’ve been through this before,” he assured the audience about trade discussions. “It’s the right thing to do, the ‘how’ is why we have the discussions.”

3. MORE MARKETS

There is more ground to sow, according to McKinney. There are a number of large markets that the U.S. could expand trade. Don’t take for granted the existing countries where we do business, McKinney suggested: “Let us never forget the importance of these markets.” Markets such as:

  • India. The large market has unique diets and cultural influences, and that could make it a hard market to crack. “It’s going to be a bear to do business there,” he said. His example: the recent tariffs placed on peas, pulses, and lentils – including ag products that were already en route on boats. India could be a long journey, but worth it, he predicted. “Every journey of 10 miles, a hundred miles, or a thousand miles begins with a single step.” He cited Germany and Japan as examples of long-term trading relationships that have shown success.
     
  • “We’re flat out getting after new markets,” McKinney said, using Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as examples of recent countries he has visited that have shown promise. In baseball vernacular, if NAFTA is a home run, “We’re going after doubles, singles. We’ll even take a bunt or a walk if they come our way.”

4. TRADE IS MORE THAN EXPORTS

McKinney made it clear that trade does not mean that a trade partner must be equal in terms of the monetary value of trade items. His team, and that of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, agree that “trade is a two-way street. We’re going to live that.”

In other words, it doesn’t have to be an “I win/you lose” scenario. Both sides can win, even with an imbalance in trade.

5. SHOW UP

McKinney says his personal credo is that “more than halfway to winning the battle is just showing up.” Respect your partners, create lasting relationships that are balanced in both directions.

6. PERSPECTIVE

Keep all of the headlines, the rhetoric, and the presidential tweets in perspective, McKinney counsels. The president is serious about issues, and you cannot predict when a storm is going to come. In his words, “That left hook, or whatever, is going to come.” Despite the dark warnings, McKinney said, “We’re flat out getting the message across. I think we’re going to get there.”

7. HE’S BULLISH

McKinney is “bullish on the future, not pollyanish.” He believes the U.S. will get NAFTA improved and sooner than we think. 

The same on Korea trade and Japan. “If we get all this trade stuff right-sized, we are going to be much better off,” he closed.

He’s joined Perdue’s “million mile club,” meaning he’s well-traveled in his quest to build trade relationships to grow the agricultural pie for U.S. producers. 

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