Hundreds of stakeholders in the agriculture sector on Wednesday braved a Nor’easter predicted to drop almost a half foot of snow in Washington to attend a summit on ag food and policy hosted by Agri-Pulse Communications.
Kicking off the event at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill was Ray Starling, special assistant to President Trump for agriculture, trade and food assistance, who made a reference to the storm that was just starting to flex its muscles outside with an ironic, “Welcome to Spring!”
The first topic Starling tackled was trade, asserting that the Trump administration’s message to the ag community on trade is what it has always been: “We are open for business.”
Starling acknowledged that some of the steps President Trump has taken on trade (read that withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and demanding a renegotiation of NAFTA) has created some “nervousness” among the country’s farmers and ranchers. But he said Trump’s “end game is to create a level playing field” that, at the end of the day, will benefit agriculture.
He also talked about the present contentious negotiations between the nation’s ethanol producers and refinery owners over the possibility of capping prices of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs). He said a search for a “win-win” solution continues but suggested that both sides may have to compromise in the end.
Starling also tried to reassure the ag sector that Larry Kudlow, whom Trump has picked to replace Gary Cohn as the director of the National Economic Council, “is going to be a good ally for agriculture.” He said Kudlow’s views on many subjects are similar to those of Cohn, who quit the White House after Trump ignored his advice and imposed steep tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, risking a trade war.
On the farm bill, Starling told the crowd that the White House believes most farm programs, including crop insurance, are “vital.” But he said that in looking for savings, administration budget hawks must be “realistic” and will look to “that part of the farm bill that costs the most,” noting that 80 percent of USDA’s budget is spent on the SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Later in the morning, Ted McKinney, USDA’s new undersecretary for trade, asked the ag sector to keep things “in perspective” when they hear President Trump talk about trade, sometimes pushing “boundaries a little bit” to achieve a certain objective. This can leave farmers and ranchers “a little bit nervous,” but “I assure you – the administration absolutely knows your views.”
“Keep things in perspective,” McKinney said, “because I think we’re gonna get there.”
(This story was updated at 11:10 a.m. to include remarks by Ted McKinney.)