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Starling Relays White House Perspective on Trade, Farm Bill, RFS

Special Assistant to the President for Agriculture, Agricultural Trade, and Food Assistance to the White House Ray Starling was the first to take the stage at the Ag and Food Policy Summit Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Sara Wyant, founder and editor of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc., introduced Starling, calling him a longtime leader in the agriculture industry.

“I can’t think of anyone who is a better, more talented advocate for agriculture serving in the White House,” she said.

Starling opened the session making light of the snow day in Washington, thanking the audience of farmers, FFA members, and other policy-interested agribusiness professionals for their commitment to the event.

As he transitioned to address the hot policy issues facing the agriculture industry, he noted there is much to be gained by working together. “We are a minority when it comes to numbers, but our issues are big,” said Starling.

Starling also took time to highlight Tuesday’s events celebrating National Ag Day when Vice President Mike Pence addressed an audience at the National Press Club and quoted Paul Harvey’s famous “So God Made a Farmer” speech.

Starling also noted a National Ag Day proclamation was signed by President Trump for the second year in a row, pointing out the administration knows the economic significance of the agriculture sector.

“Our farmers supply over $100 billion dollars in exports to the rest of the world. They are innovators,” Starling noted, citing the president’s proclamation.

Starling paused to highlight other reasons agriculture is important, repeating Pence’s remarks from Tuesday’s appearance.

“There’s something about the virtues of working the land, of having to rely on the blessings of providence, of having to wait on the weather. The resilience and the faith that it takes, I think it’s nurtured not only people in farming, but I think it’s a very real sense. It’s nurtured the character of our nation,” Starling quoted Pence.

“I’m not merely cheerleading, or stalling, but when we just focus on the economic factors agriculture brings to the table, we leave the rest of the story on the sidelines,” Starling said.

There’s something unique about the culture of having farm families in our country, and we’re better off for it, Starling continued. With that, rural America has needs, he said, acknowledging the importance of broadband and tax reform.

Trade

As Starling transitioned to talk about trade, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), and the farm bill, he celebrated the confirmation of Gregg Doud as chief agricultural negotiator saying, “It is about time Gregg Doud got to work. We’re happy about that. No one is more ready to show up at work than Gregg Doud.”

Doud is slated to speak later in the day at the Ag and Food Policy Summit. “I think part of what you will hear from him is this president and administration look forward to expanding opportunities for trade,” Starling predicted.

“We are open for business. Our end game is to create a level playing field where we think farmers will be the first to benefit. We will do everything to protect our farmers from retaliation,” Starling continued emphasizing “free and reciprocal trade” multiple times.

“Be careful with the narrative here,” Starling warned. “We are pushing for free and fair trade. If there is retaliation, that tells you something about the state of free and fair trade.”

Rural America

While the Secretary of Agriculture’s report on ag and rural prosperity isn’t top of mind for many people in the room, Starling said he wanted to assure the audience, “That work continues. That is not a report that was produced and put on a shelf.”

The findings of the report were cited by President Trump in his historic address to farmers and ranchers attending the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Meeting in January and more recently by Vice President Pence at National Ag Day festivities.

“We at the White House are going to continue to be involved in coordinating and monitoring the work that’s coming out, some of the cross-agency initiatives that were identified there. Our job is to continue to use that as a touchstone and continued to come and refer back to that as it drives our agenda,” Starling said.

RFS

Starling briefly touched on the ongoing RFS debate.

“This is a contentious topic. And it should be. There is a lot at stake,” he said. “It is now so ingrained in the economics of our ag world.”

Starling continued, “Secretary Perdue and Deputy Secretary Censky have been tireless in trying to think about creating ways and work with the industry on ways we can preserve the president’s commitment to the RFS, but also to acknowledge that not everyone is a fan of the program and how it’s functioning at the moment.

“The search for a win-win continues,” Starling said. He explained the administration is “in a time of discernment,” having more conversations, and trying to avoid any surprises.

Farm Bill

Starling acknowledged the certainty the passage of a farm bill brings to rural America, but noted the administration wants to leave the committees room to maneuver.

Starling shared that he recently visited with Larry Kudlow, Trump’s new economic adviser. Kudlow takes the place of Gary Cohn, who resigned from his position as director of the White House National Economic Council over Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

“I look forward to working with him,” said Starling, noting Kudlow’s general framework is similar to his own and Cohn’s. “He’s going to be a good ally for agriculture. He’s going to be effective on day one.”

Later Starling was questioned about the differences between the priorities Trump outlined when he addressed American Farm Bureau and the budget he released.

Starling pointed to spending priorities that Trump promised on the campaign trail including a $60 billion increase for the military and building a wall and the goals of a balanced budget. “Ag did not take a disproportionate cut in that exercise,” he said.

“For the most part, Congress is going to write the farm bill. If we’re going to be relevant in that conversation, we have to be realistic.”

To conclude his comments on the farm bill, Starling pointed out 80% of the farm bill’s budget is spent on SNAP. Most of that conversation is going to be on where the most cost is.

“We don’t want the farm bill to go away,” Starling assured the audience.

4-H and FFA

In closing, Starling took time to acknowledge the importance of programs like 4-H and FFA in shaping the next generation of agricultural leaders.

“I wouldn’t be standing here today if it weren’t for those organizations,” he said, crediting FFA for his first plane ride and first trip to his home state of North Carolina’s capitol.

When pressed further about what the White House was doing to support ag education in a question posed by FFA students in attendance, Starling emphasized, “Visibility is important.”

FFA officers have been present at many of the notable agriculture events the president and vice president have hosted in the last year.

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