By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- President Donald Trump's No. 1 priority for agriculture is international trade, followed by a "reliable, affordable workforce," Ray Starling, special assistant to the president for agriculture on the National Economic Council, told a National Ag Day event at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
In what appears to be his first public speech since taking the job at the White House about four weeks ago, Starling also announced that Trump had issued a proclamation of National Agriculture Day and also talked about regulation, infrastructure and nominations for subcabinet positions.
The president's proclamation stated, "American farmers and ranchers are the heart and soul of America and they represent the determined, self-reliant character of our Nation. We are proud of American agriculture and we recognize agriculture's critical role to our Nation's bright future."
Starling, who grew up in North Carolina, previously worked for Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. He told reporters afterward that the White House realizes there has been "angst" among farmers and ranchers due to some of Trump's statements about foreign countries and trade agreements, but that the administration recognizes the importance of trade to agriculture and intends to pursue trade agreements that will help the sector.
Starling also told reporters, "Over the course of the last couple of weeks, we have been cycling ag groups into the White House to make their case and what their priorities are. A lot of people on the ag front think what we got out of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was generally good and that we certainly don't want to regress any of the gains we made there for agriculture."
Starling noted that Tillis, his former boss, had problems with the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement from which Trump has withdrawn, but that when he was on Capitol Hill "certainly we heard from the ag community [that] TPP was this great thing for ag, was going essentially to be a bit of our nirvana in terms helping us raise prices. All of that is instructive. I hope that we don't retreat from that. I don't get a sense that we will."
Many of the provisions that were in the TPP agreement "will become a floor as opposed to a ceiling," Starling said. But he acknowledged that other countries have "fierce negotiators" and that the Trump administration "will still have to work hard to get there" and that he hopes "to get back to some of those wins we already negotiated."
Starling said farmers and ranchers should be reassured that what's said inside the White House about agriculture and trade is "nothing but good stuff" about how agriculture is contributing to lessening the trade deficit.
"The president has talked a lot about our manufacturing imbalance on trade, but that is not meant to neglect ag. That is essentially to say we know ag is doing a good job, we are making strides there, we need to do more," he said.
"One of the quickest things" that could increase exports is for the value of the dollar to drop or world demand to increase, he added. But given the level of world stocks, "we won't clear the backlog anytime soon," he concluded.
When asked about immigration policy, Starling said, "I am pretty sure I did not use the word immigration; I used access to a reliable, affordable workforce."
The most important goal, he said, is to secure the current workforce. Farmers are worried about potential raids on fruit and vegetable and dairy farms that have a lot of undocumented workers, but Starling did not say how workers would be secured.
The issue of the farm workforce must begin "early on, just admitting that ag has to be part of that conversation," he said, adding that "there are really two things ag is looking for as part of that conversation."
One, he said, is "how do we stabilize the current workers to the extent that there are people currently engaged in agriculture and farming activities whose legal status may not be sure -- how we stabilize that and create a situation where we don't lose all those workers or they don't move to another industry?"
The second part, Starling added, is that "we are going to take a look at these temporary guest worker programs to reform them in a way that they are more secure, they are more reliable, and that, frankly, for the users that are trying to follow the rules and do it right, to make sure they are not as cumbersome, that they are easier to use."
But Starling said that he and others on the National Economic Council have been charged with determining "what are the factors inhibiting economic growth in the sector you represent" and that, in agriculture "we are coming to a point of push comes to shove when it comes to a reliable workforce."
After trade and the workforce, Trump's third policy priority for agriculture is to "evaluate the existing regulatory landscape and make it less onerous," Starling said. Trump also wants to create "a systemic mechanism" across the government so agriculture has a voice in all the agencies after he leaves office, he added.
Starling noted that agriculture already has a voice within the Agriculture Department, but the biggest problems have been with the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and others. Farmers are not usually "hounded" by the Agriculture Department, he said.
Trump's fourth priority, Starling said, is improving the infrastructure in rural America. That includes everything from the land grant colleges to ports, roads and bridges, he said.
"Rural America may need different solutions," Starling said.
On whether infrastructure will be a package, Starling said he would defer to D.J. Gribbin, the special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy. Starling noted that he and Gribbin had met with a group of ag and rural leaders on the infrastructure issues, and he said that Gribbin has already incorporated what he learned in that meeting into his presentations at the White House.
"We are still weeks away from really revealing how that is going to unfold," Starling said. "The key message there is that ag is going to have a seat at the table."
In fact, he added, agriculture is a "key part" of conversations about health care and tax reform as well as infrastructure.
Starling also said it was just as important to tell the attendees celebrating National Agriculture Day what the administration won't do, and in that vein made a series of pronouncements:
"This administration has already taken steps to minimize the implications of the last president's WOTUS [Waters of the United States or Clean Water rule] proposal, and we will never propose an expansive reading of the Clean Water Act that gives the federal government an opportunity and jurisdiction to regulate every ditch and mud hole on your private property.
"This administration will not use the Endangered Species Act to regulate in a way that doesn't respect the peaceful co-existence of productive agriculture.
"This administration will not release sensitive and private data on farmers just because ecologically driven fanatics and lawyers want it.
"This administration will not allow the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to give taxpayer dollars to activist groups who then turn around and put up billboards that attack our farmers and ranchers.
"This administration will never lose sight of the fact that the No. 1 farm preservation tool we have is farm profitability -- not buzzwords, not catchphrases, or a federal grant program."
Speaking of "smart" farming, Starling said that agriculture "is always innovating, always looking to keep its environmental footprint as soft as possible" while creating the safest, most affordable food supply in the world.
On the issue of the nomination of subcabinet level officials at USDA, Starling said the administration's priority is to get the Senate to confirm Sonny Perdue, the former Republican Georgia governor who is Trump's nominee for Agriculture secretary. The administration wants Perdue to "weigh in" on the other appointments, he said.
Talking about all these proposals in his first weeks on the job is "fun," Starling said, but "nothing will be very fun if we don't actually get things done."
The president's full proclamation on National Ag Day: https://www.whitehouse.gov/…
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