BY RAY STARLING, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT
FOR AGRICULTURE, TRADE AND FOOD ASSISTANCE,
ON EXECUTIVE ORDER PROMOTING
AGRICULTURE AND RURAL PROSPERITY
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
5:05 P.M. EDT
MS. WALTERS: Ray Starling, who is at the National Economic Council, he’s going to be briefing you. This is embargoed until this evening at 9:00 p.m. It is on the record, and Ray can spell out his name for those of you who need it. Again, embargoed until 9 o’clock tonight. You have a factsheet, and Ray will take questions at the end after he runs you through anything. And any additional follow-ups, direct them to Kelly. She will be here after.
MR. STARLING: Thank you. Good evening and — or afternoon, rather, and thank you for not leaving and for being interested in the event that we’re doing tomorrow. My name is Ray Starling. I am the Special assistant to the President for Agriculture, Trade and Food Assistance. And as you can guess, I was not raised north of Washington, D.C., so if we have any translation issues, we’ll let Kelly step in for those. (Laughter.)
You have a briefing sheet in front of you. I want to provide a little more commentary about the folks that will be joining us tomorrow afternoon. We have assembled quite the group, and I want you to have a little background on each of them. So I will move through that list much like a fat man moves through a barbed wire fence — hitting on the main points but getting through as quickly as possible. (Laughter.)
Of course, you know Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. We are very much looking forward to him being confirmed tonight. He will have a busy day tomorrow beginning with his swearing-in first thing tomorrow morning, then going to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a speech to the employees there in the patio — that inner sanctum, if you will, of the USDA property over there. I believe at the end of that event they will have Georgia peach pies for folks who partake in that, so that’s a nice touch.
Secretary Perdue — or, by tomorrow, Secretary Perdue we will call him — he is a farmer and has been engaged in agriculture and agribusiness for a number of years, so we’re certainly proud to have him at the table.
I would also point out Zippy Duvall. Mr. Duvall is the president of American Farm Bureau. He is a broiler, cattle, and hay farmer in Greensboro, Georgia. A broiler is a meat chicken, as opposed to an egg chicken. I’m sure you knew all that, but, in case you didn’t, I’m just showing off.
Ms. Valerie Early will be at the table tomorrow. Valerie is a national FFA officer. She is also a former 4-H member. So Valerie will bring a younger perspective to the table. She is an agricultural education major. She is currently taking a year off from her studies to serve the FFA as an officer. So we look forward to having Valerie in town tomorrow afternoon as well.
A.G. Kawamura. Mr. Kawamura is from California; he has an interesting background. His family has been involved in agriculture for a number of years. They farm both conventionally and organic in Orange County, California. So he has had to deal with some of the urban sprawl and rural interfacing issues that are really hitting a number of farmers around the country. He’s also served as the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and has been active in the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. A ton of stuff on the web about A.G. if you want to read more about his background.
Luke Brubaker. Luke comes to us from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. He is a dairy farmer in Lancaster County. Started the farm in 1970 with only 18 cows, and now has over 800, and farms over 1,000 acres of land. Has a number of different production techniques that he engages there in Pennsylvania.
Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey. Mr. Northey is also still farming, in addition to serving his state as Secretary of Agriculture. He is a fourth-generation Iowa farmer, and still grows corn and soybeans on his farm near Spirit Lake. He has been the Secretary of Ag since 2006, and so he certainly understands this sector and will bring an important perspective to the table tomorrow.
Tom Demaline from Avon, Ohio. Tom is — we certainly consider him, in the agricultural space, as a farmer, but he does nursery and landscape projects — or nursery and landscape production, I should say. His entity, Willoway Nurseries, supplies nursery products to, I believe, 26 states throughout the Midwest and out on the East Coast. So he’s certainly been active in the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association and in other industry associations. So Tom will be with us tomorrow afternoon.
Ms. Lynetta Usher Griner. Ms. Griner farms two different main crops in Florida. One is — she’s actually a timber producer. She’s a forester. She was the first female president of the Florida Forestry Association. She also farms cattle. Some of that production occurs in Florida, and some of that production occurs out in Kansas. She piqued our interest because there happens to be someone in the Senate from Kansas who is very interested in agriculture. And so she can represent both Florida and Kansas during the conversation tomorrow. She was Florida’s 2013 Woman of the Year in agriculture.
Terry Swanson is from Walsh, Colorado. He has lived in Colorado all of his life and raises a number of cattle on 10,000 acres of ranch land, and then he also farms 7,500 acres of land. He’s been very active in the National Sorghum Producers Association and also on some research panels with the Colorado State University Extension Service there in Colorado.
Commissioner Steve Troxler is the North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture. Commissioner Troxler no longer farms tobacco, but at one time did — that, wheat, vegetables, and soybeans. At one time Commissioner Troxler — if you were eating a tomato in the Piedmont of North Carolina at a restaurant, you, more than likely, were eating his tomato. He’s a past president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and he has been very active with the FDA as they are implementing their Food Safety Modernization Act regulations.
An eleventh person on our panel tomorrow is James Lamb. Just as an aside, Mr. Lamb told me a fun story. I asked him, I said, what is the name of your farm, and do you call it Lamb Farms or Lamb Family Farms? And he said he had to change his name and put his entire name on the sign by the road because when people drove by and saw “Lamb Farms,” they kept stopping and wanting to buy a lamb. So he does not raise lambs. He is, however, a pig farmer for Prestage Farms, down in North Carolina, and he also does environment quality for Prestage Farms. So he has his own farm, and in addition he works for the company, leading part of their environmental protection efforts.
He has been named an “outstanding pork producer” by the North Carolina Pork Council. He also grows corn, soybeans, millet, Bermuda grass, and cattle. That is not unusual for that part of the country — pig farmers who spray their effluent out on Bermuda grass, wait for the appropriate period of time to pass, grow out the grass, and then harvest the grass and feed it to cattle. So if we were looking at a production map of that part of the country, we would see both hay, cattle, and pork all be sort of synonymous in that area. So Mr. Lamb will be with us tomorrow.
Hank Choate. And I need to apologize — completely my mistake — on your briefing document he is referred to as “Hang Choate.” He is not “Hang,” he is “Hank.” So my apologies for that. Please help us correct that. Hank runs Choate’s Belly Acres, in Cement City, Michigan. A very interesting story: A seventh-generation farmer, and they take very seriously continuing to involve the different generations in the farm. He has been very active in a number of associations and organizations in the ag world there. He’s also a dairy farmer. He has Holstein cows, and also grows corn, alfalfa, soybeans, and wheat. So a great story with Mr. Choate coming in tomorrow.
Ms. Maureen Torrey. She is from Mr. Trump’s home state of New York. She’s an eleventh-generation farmer near Rochester, New York. She raises fresh market vegetables and runs a dairy farm with about 2,000 cows. Also operates a grain farm and a trucking company. So Ms. Torrey, we’re pleased to have her at the table, and we look forward to seeing how she and the President interact over their rural New York roots.
Mr. Jose Rojas is the vice president of farm operations at Hormel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the only person in our group who can honestly make a claim to the fact that he raises over 450,000 pigs a year. He oversees the production operations for Hormel, and as I understand it, later this summer will be transferring over, where he will be helping to raise turkeys. So he checked both of those boxes. An interesting gentleman because he was born in Mexico, came to Iowa State to receive part of his education — a master’s degree in animal husbandry — and then started working in the vertically integrated pork sector.
And the last person on our list, Ms. Lisa Johnson-Billy. And I also apologize, I might have mis-alphabetized her name. I probably put it with the J as opposed to the B. But Ms. Johnson-Billy is a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. She was termed out there. She started the first Native American caucus that the legislature in Oklahoma had. She is still a farmer, and her family lives on about a 200-acre farm. She has three sons, all of whom were involved in FFA, and one of whom, when he went off to Oklahoma State University, he got active or became active in ROTC and is currently in training to be an active-duty helicopter pilot with the United States Army.
Our intention tomorrow is for the President to meet each of these folks to hear a little bit about their operation and to hear what’s on their minds. As we point out, in terms of pure numbers, the ag sector does not make up a large part of the population, but certainly those engaged in the allied industry sector do and their economic impact in rural communities across America certainly allows them to punch above their weight, if you will. We also brag on them. Certainly we have the most efficient farmers in the world, the most effective at producing our food, and that’s why we pay a lower percentage of our income on food than any country in the world.
I would add one other thing, and I would just say, to my knowledge — we have asked the librarian to help us double-check this, actually raised this point this morning with the North American ag journalists and I got checked a little bit, but not entirely wrong — we cannot find any reference to a presidential meeting with a group this size this early in a President’s administration, back to Reagan’s time, when in either January or February of 1981, when the Russian wheat embargo was going forward, something that Reagan had agreed to end were he to become President and something that Carter had implemented. Our understanding is that there were a group of farmers that came to the White House very early in Reagan’s administration to have a conversation about that. That’s the only other record we can find at the moment. But I’m sure if I’m wrong about that you will let me know. But to say that it’s been a while would be an understatement.
The last thing I would cover on the roundtable is that we certainly expect a wide range of topics to come up, as is evidenced by the wide range of folks who will be attending the meeting. They are listed there for you. I will not insult you by reading them, but certainly the list could grow longer. All of these things are issues that those of us in agriculture see as potential limiting factors economically and things that we need to address.
I think that then sets up exactly — that need is what sets up the task force that the President will establish tomorrow. He will be asking Governor Perdue — hopefully by tomorrow Secretary Perdue — to establish a task force that does a 180-day review of regulations, policies, legislation that unnecessarily hinders economic growth in the agricultural sector.
We also, in the course of that executive order, sunset the current makeup of the Rural Council. We certainly think they did some important work and we’re glad that they focused on rural America and brought some of the members of the last administration together. However, there are very few records formally of their meetings. I think a blog was maintained, but very little in the way of their accomplishments. And so one of the things that we will ask the task force to do is to take a look at, were we to create another body along those lines, what would that need to look like and how could it be most effective at establishing cross-agency communication and cross-agency collaboration that’s good for agriculture.
With that, I think I’m happy to take questions. Are we good?
Q In terms of this effort, the Rural Council included a lot of people from — various officials in the Obama administration. Is this task force going to be people from the Ag Department, is it going to be outside people? How is that going to continue to work?
MR. STARLING: So two answers to that question. Number one, certainly if you were to look at the executive order tomorrow, the list will look very similar to the list of players that were involved in the Rural Council. We have certainly all the same Cabinet Secretaries listed, to my knowledge. It is a long list — Treasury, Defense, Attorney General, Interior, Commerce, Labor, EPA — we go down the list. And the idea there is, to your question and to the point, I believe, certainly farmers have to interface with the United States Department of Agriculture, and there are things there that we can do, regulatorily, to make their life easier. But I think many farmers, were you to interview them, they would say that most of their challenges come from other agencies — not intentionally, but because there are fewer people in those agencies that understand agriculture, or that might have been raised or grown up or familiar with our production, techniques and technology.
So, number one, I would say, yes, cross-agency, a number of Cabinet Secretaries at the table. The second thing I would say is the EO obviously has specific language directing the task force to do outreach and to accept ideas and thoughts from the field, not just of federal officials but also state and local officials as well.
Q You spent a lot of time talking about farming issues, but USDA also deals with rural development, housing, broadband. Could you talk about the scope of this executive order?
MR. STARLING: Sure. Those things are absolutely included. I would say on the messaging point there that we do believe that in these rural communities, the best thing we can do to make them grow quickly and economically is to focus on agriculture because it is the number-one driver in most of these rural communities. But we certainly understand that’s not the only silver bullet.
And so one of the things the task force is charged with doing is looking at those rural communities and also making recommendations with regard to what we can do to promote their economic stability as well.
Q Can you tell me — trade has been such a big issue for the administration. Can you tell me about how this group will discuss trade and how that fits into —
MR. STARLING: Absolutely. I think there is a lot of conversation in the ag community now about how we are a net contributor to lessening the trade deficit. Ag believes we are doing a good job. We obviously grow more food than we can eat in the United States. So our real potential for economic growth is either talking you all into eating more, or to finding new markets for our products overseas. And while I’m a big fan of the latter — or is that the former? — the former, we know that our real potential is in countries where incomes are growing and in countries where populations are growing.
So if you look at agreements like NAFTA, if you look at the negotiations that happened in TPP, certainly on the table there were goods things there for ag. I think there was renowned recognition across the ag communities that should this become our agreement, this is good for us. I believe those things now become a part of the new conversations, even in these bilateral agreements, to the extent that we’re not pursuing multilateral, large trade agreements like the TPP.
And so I think the point to be made there is these farmers will make sure they leave the President with an impression of how important that agricultural trade is and, in particular, how important the agricultural trade is just north and just south of our border here with the United States, namely with Canada and Mexico.
Q So I just wanted to clarify, is the task force only going to be made up of officials from federal agencies? Is that what the task force —
MR. STARLING: That’s correct. And White House officials. Yes, ma’am.
Q Okay. And then so I also wanted to ask — so this task force is going to be looking at identifying regulatory policy challenges for agriculture. It seems like the White House has done a lot of these. I mean, is there anything in particular that the White House now has in mind that they feel like is hindering agriculture? Any policies in particular? I mean, it just seems so broad to say, look at all regulations. Is there anything in particular that —
MR. STARLING: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think when you see the executive order tomorrow, you will see that some direction is given in the order for the purpose and functions of the task force, and it is along the lines of seeing, “consider changes, including the following” — certainly things that are not on the list may be included. But you’ll see some directives there to think in particular about how we adopt technology and agriculture.
There’s a large debate, I think, internationally about biotechnology, not just here in the United States, but that’s a very good issue that ties into the trade question. To the extent that we are going to sell our products overseas, we need to make sure that we have the biotech approvals in those foreign markets that we need. So looking at how we do that across the government, there are a number of players in involved in that. It’s not just USDA; it could be FDA, EPA, and certainly those folks that are responsible for international trade as well.
I would also point out, think about FSMA implementation, the Food Safety Modernization Act. For the first time over the course of this administration, FDA will be responsible for — farm regulation with regard to things like water and soil additives. And so there’s a lot of talk and concern in the ag community that we make sure those regulations, as they are being created and promulgated, that they recognize the difference in small farms and big farms, the difference in water sources, the difference in terms of application so that one size does not fit all. I would also throw out that farmers need crop protection tools when they are faced with insects or pests, and how we move those products to market in a safe and effective way will certainly be something I think the task force would take seriously. So a myriad of things, absolutely.
There was a question back here.
Q Yeah, this task force, will it also be looking honestly at the labor issue vis-à-vis the immigration crackdown? Because my understanding is a significant part of labor in ag is undocumented workers. I believe in California it’s like 70 percent of farmworkers. It seems like there should be some ramifications there. Will this be honestly addressed?
MR. STARLING: Absolutely. In fact, there is certainly language in the EO that talks about how do we ensure access to reliable workforce. I suspect tomorrow that is certainly something that a number of the folks in the room will bring up to the President. We have a number of growers in the room that use H-2A workers, so they use the temporary guest workers through the Department of Labor program. There’s also a number of farms in the room that use local laborers. I don’t want to quibble with your statistics, but I will tell you we have each year a little over a million farmworkers. And in any given year, most recently we’ve had between 170,000 and 180,000 H-2A workers.
So figuring out what that delta is, I think you can think through that. A number of those folks also supply papers that maybe the farmer does not even understand, it may not be accurate. But that is a problem, a consistent issue for agriculture that is not new. It is perhaps more pressing now; we hear more farmers talking about it now. And hopefully in this new environment we’ll be able to make some progress on it. But certainly the task force will take a look that that.
Q Can I just clarify, is this group going to operate separate and apart from what the NEC is doing, what the Trade Council is going, what the USDA is doing in decision-making that would be happening either simultaneously or in the next couple months, let alone the next six months?
MR. STARLING: Sure. Structure-wise, Secretary Perdue is the chair of the task force, and it is managed out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So it will not be run exclusively out of the White House. So we do not know exactly how quickly he’ll convene that group, but I think it will be on its own track. We will certainly plug in — the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council will have a seat on the task force. So I hope it’s really an integrated operation, and not one that is one-off or doesn’t fit in with all the other efforts that are ongoing.
Q But it will be a series of reports, or just a report at the end of —
MR. STARLING: That’s a question better for Secretary Perdue. I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know how he’ll end up managing that process.
Q Can I follow up on that last question? The President himself, and his family, is in the wine business. He’s used, personally, seasonal workers. But we really haven’t heard him talk a lot about these issues; maybe a little bit during the Iowa caucuses, or right before them. Can you fill us in a little bit on the President’s thinking when it comes both to farm labor as well as kind of point some of the direction he’d like to see things moving in, giving us like a little hint of maybe what he’d like to see?
MR. STARLING: Well, I think in talking with the President I would say a couple of things. Number one, he said he loves his farmers. He has also said he recognizes that farming is a difficult business and that there are tight margins in agriculture. On the trade front, I think he would say, we need to win there and we’re not going to sacrifice wins in agriculture for gains in other sectors. So I definitely think the President gets that. I look forward to hearing what he says tomorrow when he’s pressed and discussed these issue with the group of farmers.
Q Do you know specifically on the labor issue?
MR. STARLING: I don’t know specifically on the labor issue. I can tell you he has never said anything hostile about temporary ag guest workers.
Q And one other thing that I do remember that he talked a little bit about was changing kind of inheritance taxes so that — he talked a little bit about how family farms had trouble passing those along. Have you talked to him about that issue at all?
MR. STARLING: No. We know that the estate tax issue is a part of the comprehensive tax reform conversation. Another issue that’s very important for agriculture there is not just that estate tax issue, particularly given the new limits, but also the question of stepped-up basis. It’s a real issue for ag as families try to pass along their operations. But we have not had a specific conversation in that regard.
Q Is that part of the EO at all?
MR. STARLING: Yes, I think we say something in the EO about our tax policy.
Q Is there any way that you might be able — just because we won’t see — we’re going to have to write before we actually see the EO. Would it be possible for you just to read out what the main categories are that it touches on?
MR. STARLING: Let me make sure I have not told you a fib about taxes. It does not look like we mention the word “tax” in the EO, but I definitely think that conversation fits into our other qualifiers about anything that impacts economic development, job growth, and quality of life in rural America.
In terms of you guys getting a copy of the EO, that is why Kelly makes the big bucks. So I’ll defer that question to her.
All right, maybe one more, two more. Anything else?
Thank you all.
5:29 P.M. EDT