“Relationships are the currency around this town, and the administration wants to have a good relationship with [the organic] sector,” and help “move the economic needle for agriculture,” Ray Starling, special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade and food assistance, told attendees May 24 at the Organic Trade Association’s Policy Day in Washington, DC.
He acknowledged that the organic industry already has “been doing that on your own,” but says the administration “wants to be a part of that” to further propel the industry and US as a whole forward.
To do this, he suggested that the administration would focus on “four major buckets,” including trade, workforce, regulatory reform and by including organic agriculture in the larger infrastructure conversation.
Creating trade deals that protect organic standards
In terms of trade, the administration wants to increase exports given that “American farmers have an impressive ability to produce much more than we consume,” Starling said.
“The president is committed to both negotiating and renegotiating deals that do that and do that with agriculture in mind. I think the president fully understands we are a contributor to lessening of the deficit … and he recognizes we bring the side of that equation closer to where he wants to be,” he said.
For the organic sector this will translate into strengthening and enforcing harmonization agreements with other countries so that it is easier to export organic products but at the same time does not dilute or devalue the standards American organic farmers follow, he said.
“Protecting your label is specifically important to us,” Starling said. “Folks recognize what your label means, so the last thing we want to do is to allow other people to come in and loot that label. If they want to earn it, welcome to the club, we are happy to have you. But if they are going to somehow water that down, we want to know about that because those are conversations we want to bring up with them and face them about.”
A promise to prove an ‘affordable workforce’
Starling also said the Trump administration wants to provide farmers with a “reliable, affordable workforce.” However, he was light on the details about how to achieve that.
“We talked about this issue of [immigration and ag labor] for a long time. I have my own theories about why it has not yet happened, but those of us in agriculture know we need some relief. We need to do something about this, and we need to use common sense,” he said.
He went on to say that for too long “we have sort of covered up the symptoms of the problem ... and we sort of want to pretend it has been fixed, and that is just not the case.”
Starling said the administration wants the organic agriculture sector’s “help” and “views” on how to address the economic challenge created by labor strains, but he did not provide color on what the administration is currently considering, if anything.
Regulatory relief on the docket
Starling also promised relief from “the regulatory onslaught” that has given “our farmers and ranchers … the impression and feeling that they have been the victims of one regulatory proposal after another.”
He said he was excited about the president’s executive order signed April 25 that directs the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct a 180-day review of regulations that are impacting the agriculture industry and to “try to discern places across the agencies, not just the USDA, but the EPA, the Department of Interior or elsewhere, where there are regulatory happenings if you will, with regard to our economic growth.”
He added “we need less regulation,” and that the administration will work with industry to identify if there are regulations that are creating “economic barriers to success in your sector, that we can responsibly move to lower your cost to production, while still being responsible to whatever the original policy was for that regulation in the first place.”
USDA will lead this effort, starting with an initial meeting in the next few weeks, he said, adding that members of the organic and broader agriculture industry should weigh in. On the docket for review are organic transition certification, elements of the Food Safety Modernization Act, dairy regulations as they relate to organic and the National List of non-organic ingredients allowed in organic production, among others.
“Last but not least, agriculture will be a part of the infrastructure conversation” that the Trump administration is leading on a broader scale, Starling said.
While he said he needed to be “careful about what I promise on infrastructure,” and that there will not be a “check writing party,” he said there will be investment in new projects and changes to the regulatory process that will help projects move forward more quickly.
Recognizing that these are big promises and focus areas, Starling said he hopes “that this is more than lip service.”
He added, “We are sincere about making progress on these things. When I come to work each day it is my goal to make progress on each of these four core areas, and if I didn’t think we were going to be able to do that, I wouldn’t be here.”