Ray Starling brings his North Carolina sensibility to his new role as the Special Assistant to the President for Agriculture, Agricultural Trade and Food Assistance. He's the first to be named to the position in several years and as he notes this is the earliest a president as appointed someone to the role.
"I think this is a sign, and some indication, of how this administration will approach ag issues," he noted.
He offered a look at some key priorities for the Trump Administration including promoting ag trade, that farmers would have access to an affordable workforce, that regulatory reform is needed and that going forward ag should have a seat at the table when new regulations are proposed.
For labor, Starling noted that "we are getting to a period of push comes to shove" on the access to a workforce for agriculture. How this is shaped in future policy remains to be seen, but it is a top-of-mind issue.
Regulatory reform is a critical issue for farmers. "On the regulatory reform agenda, we want to evaluate the existing landscape, and make it less onerous," he said. "We want to lessen the cumulative impact of these regulations and provide you a stronger voice in the process to vet future regulations."
That last portion was emphasized by Starling as something of a legacy for the Administration. "Going forward we want to leave behind a mechanism so you have a seat at the table," he said. While he noted USDA has input, there should be a voice for ag at other agencies including the Department of the Interior, EPA and the Department of Labor, and that this mechanism would be built so it exists after this president leaves office.
Starling said he looks forward to working on trade and that limiting factor of access to labor, regulatory reform and making sure rural voices have a place at the table. Also there will be work on the rural infrastructure too. One statement made during the National Ag Day presentation was the first in 16 years - President Trump issued a proclamation naming March 21, 2017 as National Ag Day
After reading the proclamation, Starling noted that there was no indication in over 16 years that a president has made such a statement. "This is the first time in a long time from the White House, and I hope it's a sign for agriculture," he said.
Starling told a story of taking his wife, who was not raised on a farm, to every farm commodity meeting in North Carolina. "She told me we have an ag mafia, a kind of cult that gets together and talks about how great ag is," he said. "I said 'Yes ma'am.' What we do, we're pretty amazing."
In closing his remarks, Starling listed something interesting - some don'ts for the Administration, or more likely "won'ts."
President Trump has already taken steps to minimize Waters of the U.S. - or WOTUS - and "will never propose an expansive reading of the Clean Water Act jurisdiction to regulate every ditch and mudhole on your farm."
Starling noted that the administration will not use the Endangered Species Act to regulate in ways that don't recognize the value of peaceful coexistence of agriculture.
The administration will not release sensitive and private data on farmers just because an "ecological lawyer" wants it.
That the EPA will not give taxpayer dollars to activist groups so they can campaign against agriculture with billboards.
And that the administration will "never lose sight of the fact that the No. 1 farm preservation tool we have is farm profitability," he said.
Starling did talk about one number - 3 - which is the number of children his parents raised on a single farm and put through college. "That same size farm today would not raise three kids and put three kids through college. The takeaway is that we have work to do," he said.
In talking with Penton Agriculture after his speech, Starling said trade remains a hot topic, adding that TPP, which many say Trump "killed" was already dead in the House and Senate; and wouldn't have passed in the lame duck session even if Clinton had been elected. He added, however, that participants in the TPP, like Japan, have already reached out asking to be early to the table for new bilateral talks.
There's a process to get that trade ball rolling, but Starling appeared confident that going forward agriculture will be happy with how things transpire.