Tom Stenzel, CEO and president of United Fresh Produce Association, introduces Trump campaigner Ray Starling and Biden campaigner Tom Vilsack at the virtual United Fresh Washington Conference. ( Screenshot by Amy Sowder )

Forty days before the presidential and congressional elections, the United Fresh Washington Conference gathered representatives from Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s campaigns in a virtual session attended by more than 220 people.

Tom Vilsack, former secretary of agriculture, spoke for Biden. Ray Starling, former chief of staff to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, spoke for Trump.

The question was: How will the agriculture industry benefit from each administration in the next four years?

Starling brought up the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, as a positive program for growers, distributors and consumers who have been dealing with food insecurity.

Starling warned against regulatory over-reach, more taxes and “California climate police.”

And then he tackled the Chinese trade war.

“Being a fanboy of unchecked globalization would’ve been catastrophic,” Starling said. “President Trump was voice in the wilderness calling for a check and balance on trade with China and beyond.”

He mentioned a greater net farm income during Trump’s first term, but Vilsack said that the number is inflated by the infusion of federal funding — a bailout from China’s retaliatory tariffs and pandemic relief.

Vilsack said net farm export income has dropped during Trump’s administration, and while he agreed that going after China trade imbalances was the right action, he said Biden would form alliances with other countries also hurt by China.

“By going it alone, we were putting the target on the back of our farmers, ranchers and producers with retaliatory tariffs,” Vilsack said.

The Biden administration will focus on controlling the coronavirus with proven protective measures and a rapid vaccine, “but in a safe and effective way with fair and equitable access for all,” Vilsack said. 

Then, Biden and Democrats would rebuild domestic infrastructure to ensure a more resilient supply chain, such as new roads and better bridges and waterway access.

Biden’s administration would look for ways to create new income for farmers by placing more resources in publicly financed research to better understand how to use water and soil for the most effective production, Vilsack said.

The two candidate representatives used differing statistics on net farm income during their respective administrations.

The U.S. had the highest farm income and export income on record while Biden was vice president, Vilsack said.

Starling countered that between 2012 and 2016, there was a 42% drop in net farm income in the second Obama-Biden term.

“It’s fair to ask then, what has happened since 2016 going into 2020? By the same measure, net farm income, exclusive of direct federal government payments, has gone back up to 33%,” Starling said.

Vilsack countered that assertion by explaining that 30% of what the U.S. grows and raises is exported. “How are we doing? Are we continuing to have that trade surplus? The reality is we’re seeing an erosion,” Vilsack said. “We’ve had a surplus for over 20 years. But this could be first time we don’t.”

Election analysis

Political analyst Frank Luntz predicted election results, with the caveat that polls should be used to watch trends, rather than depended on as definitive outcome indicators.

Spoiler alert: Biden may win the presidential race and Democrats gain the majority in Congress, Luntz said.

“I know that’s not what a lot of what you want to hear, but you had me on today to tell you what I think is going to happen rather than what you want to hear,” Luntz said. “I do believe that things are narrowing.”

Biden had a 9.5-point lead 30 days ago, and that lead has been cut to 6.5 points. 

What really determines who will be the president and lead Congress in 2021 are undecided voters in 11 swing states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, New Hampshire and Minnesota, Luntz said.

Agricultural leaders need to do more to place the industry at the forefront of the election campaign discussion, he said.

There is a public disconnect from the agriculture industry, “but the good news is, we respect farmers so deeply, it is part of the fabric of our country,” Luntz said. “An even better point is that you don’t have to be a Democrat or a Republican. That respect for the farming community transcends partisanship. So, you’ve got that going for you.”

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