Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to President Trump, credits her experience working for eight summers on her uncle and aunt’s blueberry farm in New Jersey – which still operates today and includes a roadside market – for teaching her a strong work ethic at an early age.
Conway keynoted an impressive White House briefing with 125 Michigan Farm Bureau members attending the annual Washington Legislative Seminar that also included updates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Trade Representative.
As a 12-year-old, Conway said she was paid on a piece-rate basis while working in the packing phase of the blueberry operation.
"The faster you went, the more money you'd make," she said, joking she had a cousin that worked much slower. "Everything I learned about life and business started on that farm."
While acknowledging recent challenges to the farm economy, Conway credited Trump for taking the long-view and hardline stance on trade negotiations with Mexico, Canada, Korea, Japan and, most notably, China with an America-first approach for restoring optimism and the economic rebound.
“He inherited a very deep hole of trade deficit imbalances with China,” Conway said. “They’re the second-largest economy in the world and it made no sense to him (President Trump) that they were forcing technology transfers and stealing our intellectual property rights.”
Conway credited the Trump Administration’s continued focus on regulatory reform for revitalizing the U.S. economy and boosting net household income. She noted for every new regulation, seven and a half regulations on average are being eliminated.
“It's as important to talk about the new regulations in this seven and a half (regulatory) battle, because we are still regulating, we're protecting the safety and of course we want clean air and clean water, and workplace regulations are important,” Conway said.
Regulatory reform in the energy sector has also provided a significant economic boost, Conway told producers, noting the Trump administration’s pro-energy focus on developing domestic energy supplies is leading to energy independence.
“We have energy under our feet and off our shores, and we are developing that now in a responsible way that makes us less dependent on foreign actors for our energy supply,” Conway said. “That dependence has allowed us to create more secure, high-paying jobs.”
Calling U.S. agriculture the “heart and soul industry” of the country, Conway thanked producers.
“I will always have a soft spot – and a little bit more of a hard head because of my experience with agriculture and with those blueberry farms way back when,” she concluded.
Reminding producers that the deadline for ARC/PLC enrollment is March 16, USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey also joined the White House Briefing session. He said nationwide farm program enrollment is currently running at 93%, with Michigan running slightly higher at 97%.
“Hopefully, most of you have been in. If you haven't, certainly make sure that you get it scheduled,” Northey said. “Whether ARC or PLC is a better decision, both are better than not getting signed up at all.”
According to Northey, final 2019 Prevent Plant indemnities will total nearly $4 billion out of the total $10 billion in crop insurance settlements last year.
Turning to the question of Market Facilitation Payments (MFP), Northey said the first two MFP programs injected $23 billion into the U.S. farm economy to offset losses resulting from China trade negotiations and retaliatory tariffs. A decision on a possible third MFP program will hinge on how quickly China can meet trade obligations and markets rebound.
“They know the president means business,” Northey said. “The president has tweeted about the potential of whether there's another market facilitation program payment or not. Hopefully, it’s something we don't need, but you have a president and you have a USDA secretary that are very interested in making sure we get to a better economic environment in 2020.”
Acknowledging that agriculture has a trust issue with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Dave Ross, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, said the distrust was a well-earned reputation, citing threats to private property rights under the former Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS).
Calling that 2015 WOTUS rule a “massive overreach,” Ross said the revised rule, which was just cleared to be published in the Federal Register, will provide a much clearer regulatory framework and anticipates it will take effect within 60 days.
Ross also expects the revised rule will be challenged in the court system and eventually will be resolved in the Supreme Court.
“The debate is not over,” he said.
Prior to joining EPA in January 2018, Ross had 20 years of experience working on water issues in both state government and in the private sector, including a stint as the Director of the Environmental Protection Unit at the Wisconsin Department of Justice and as a partner in a land-use and natural resources law practice at an international Washington, D.C., law firm.
“When I was hired, I spent quite a bit of time dealing with states that were actually suing the federal government for trying to limit their power,” Ross said. “We’ve been focused on breaking down silos within the agency, and how to effectively and efficiently solve problems.”
Unlike his predecessors, Ross said he’s actually spent time in the private sector working with agriculture. “I have actually been on farms. I know that when you lose nutrients off your fields, it’s an economic loss,” he said. “Farmers are the first true environmentalist – I know that.”
Unfortunately, Ross said, many well-intentioned regulatory proposals often come from staff, who have never had that practical first-hand experience. In a meeting with nearly a 100 EPA Water Division Directors, a year ago to discuss nutrient management plans, he asked how many visited a farm or written an actual nutrient management plan.
“It was crickets – not a single one,” Ross said. “So, here we have people inside the beltway, trying to tell you how to run your facilities without ever understanding a thing about it.”
Behind the scene, Ross said efforts are ongoing to re-educate EPA staff to think like farmers and how to solve problems thinking and working with producers as partners – not as a problem.
“As long as I’m in this job, I will commit to you that we will respect private property rights,” Ross said. “We will only regulate where we have to, and we will respect the authority of the individual states.”