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Presidential election the focus of United Fresh session

Tad Thompson

The U.S. presidential election is growing tighter, according to national pundit Frank Luntz.

Luntz, participating in the United Fresh Produce Washington Congress virtual meeting on Sept. 23, spoke by Zoom to 200 produce industry participants. This general session was kicked off Ray Starling, former chief of staff to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and Tom Vilsack, former Secretary of Agriculture under President Obama. Starling and Vilsack presented their respective cases for why Donald Trump and Joe Biden is the best choice for the produce industry.

Zoom shot
Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, introduced national agricultural experts to present cases for the agricultural policies of President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. During United’s virtual Washington Congress with Stenzel on Sept. 23 were Ray Starling, former chief of staff to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and Tom Vilsack, former Secretary of Agriculture under President Obama.

As to the immediate campaign, Luntz said Biden’s lead in national polls had dropped to 6.5 percent from 9.5 percent in recent weeks.

With the first presidential debate scheduled for Sept. 29, Luntz suggested that Trump would benefit by generally showing humility. While his policies may have been effective, his brashness has cost support. He credited Trump for having been a positive influence for U.S. agriculture.

In the upcoming debate, Luntz suggested that Trump will likely benefit from a predictable focus on policy and Biden will appeal to the need to unify America.

The presidential election hangs in the balance with a key 6 percent of the population being undecided, Luntz noted. The swing states will be Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.

Starling flattered Vilsack by noting that when he learned of speaking for the United event opposite the former Secretary of Agriculture, he wondered why he was not asked to play one-on-one basketball against LeBron James. The cordial outreach carried throughout the presentations of the two national agricultural leaders.

Starling offered several reasons for the produce industry to vote for President Trump. He noted that agriculture policy people supporting an administration are critically important. “People are policy. People are how we get things done.”

He also said the American produce industry owes a debt of gratitude to Vilsack for his eight years of service to the Obama administration because he “was often all we had.”

He said Trump has placed agricultural experts who are “as accessible, as empathetic and as knowledgeable in production agriculture” as any such modern-era team. Starling’s list started with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and he added that knowledgeable USDA undersecretaries have primarily been drawn from state departments of agriculture.

When Starling began serving in the White House in January 2017, he noticed that in eight years leading up to his role, his ag adviser position was never filled. The role is important because it is not just about briefing the president, it’s about dealing with matters before policy conversations get to the White House.

“The Biden campaign will be hard pressed to tell you they’re going to improve on the personnel that have had our backs like the Trump administration in the last four years.”

Starling suggested that Secretary Vilsack would agree that “we need more ideas than ideology.” He credited the successful Trump administration idea in 2017 of the Harvest Box program, which three years later led to the Farmers to Families box program, which has directly benefited farmers and proved a “win-win-win” for American society.

He also credits President Trump for addressing the “unchecked” $400 billion trade imbalance with China. “Looking the other way would have been catastrophic,” Starling said. “Trusting multilateral agreements would have continued what led to the problem. That was the very reason we got to where we were.”

Starling called Trump’s new USMCA the “gold standard” for future trade negotiations. The U.S.-Japan trade agreement brought benefits to U.S. agriculture as a forethought, not an afterthought.

Also, he said, Trump has done as much as possible to minimize government regulations on agriculture. “If you want Kamala Harris and California regulations to be the norm, then Biden may be your guy,” he said.

Starling and Vilsack both indicated that more progress needs to be made on ag labor policy.

Vilsack said, “We need true immigration reform to provide a stable, secure, predictable work force at an affordable cost.”

Vilsack also agreed it was important that Trump be firm with China, but he said the United States would have been better off “not to go alone but build an alliance.” Not working with the global community in dealing with Chinese trade “placed a target on the backs of American farmers” and brought retaliatory tariffs to the United States.

Vilsack said a Biden administration would revitalize ways for the produce industry to sell to schools and improve institutional purchasing.

Vilsack shrugged off the suggestion of a “Green Deal,” but indicated “the Biden deal” would be designed to mitigate the next disruption to agriculture that could occur due to climate change. “Farmers probably understand that better than anybody else” that droughts, floods, forest fires brought about by weather and climate change impact our nation.

Biden plans to create new income for farmers by investing in “conservation practices that we know will bring healthier soil and water,” according to Vilsack, who added that Biden will place more resources in publicly financed research “to get a better understanding of how to use less water and better use soil” for greater productivity.

Vilsack said Biden favors paying farmers for carbon storage and wants to research ways to convert agricultural waste into a wide variety of new products.

Regarding new regulations for agriculture, “the vice president is very clear that in his administration there will be greater transparency to encourage those to be regulated” to be involved in “how regulations could be crafted to make sense” to the farmers.

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