USA Rice Meetings with the Trump Administration

Feb 17, 2017
Leadership Class makes the case for U.S. rice
at the Cuban Embassy
WASHINGTON, DC – While much of the action at this week’s USA Rice Government Affairs Conference took place on Capitol Hill, attendees also participated in a dozen meetings with Trump Administration officials around the city to share priorities and hear updates.
Groups made up of producers, millers, and merchants from all the major rice producing states visited with representatives and leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), World Food Program (WFP), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).
“Preserving trade agreements that work and holding our trading partners accountable that don’t live up to their obligations was our message in meetings with USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office,” said Carl Brothers, chairman of the USA Rice International Trade Policy Committee and COO, Riceland Foods, Inc.  
“We were very clear that NAFTA works for the rice industry and any improvements to this nearly 20 year-old trade deal can’t come at our expense,” Brothers said.  “Looking forward, many heavy hitters in the global rice business like India are over subsidizing their rice producers which means U.S. growers and exporters have to compete with surplus production on the world market.  The U.S. government needs to enforce existing trade agreements.”  
Kick-starting the U.S. effort to sign a long-completed phytosanitary protocol permitting the purchase of U.S. milled rice by China’s importers was a key topic of USA Rice’s meeting with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.  “This bilateral negotiation has been going on in one form or another for over a decade,” according to Michael Rue, California producer and vice chairman of the International Trade Policy Committee.  “China is delaying signature and we’re asking the incoming Administration to bring this protocol across the goal line.  They understand how important this is to the rice industry and we will assist in any way possible.”
Members also engaged in productive discussions with officials from USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) on international market opportunities and USA Rice promotional strategies for 2017 in key export markets.  Acting FAS Administrator Holly Higgins hosted the meeting, which included a welcome by Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jason Hafemeister.  
Members expressed appreciation for the strong commitment of FAS in helping rice industry efforts maintain and grow export markets.  FAS officials also reviewed the state of play regarding NAFTA and Mexico, WTO panels on China’s domestic support and TRQ administration, rice trade with Cuba under the new Administration, and the future of Brexit and its impact on EU and UK trade agreements.  
Food aid was high on the agenda of USA Rice members in meetings with officials from USDA, USAID and the WFP.  Members received an update on a study of rice fortification technologies and the use of fortified rice in food assistance programs.  This study is near completion, and the results could help fortified rice be increasingly integrated into existing food aid programs.  

“Rice fortification is a proven, cost-effective way to combat malnutrition” said Bobby Hanks, CEO of Louisiana Rice Mill and Chair of the USA Rice Food Aid Subcommittee.  “We encourage USDA and USAID to utilize every technology at their disposal so that fortified rice can be used successfully, and as a healthy and nutritious option for feeding programs”.   

In meetings with WFP officials, USA Rice members were clear in their support of in-kind commodity contributions in food aid programs as opposed to cash or vouchers, which can seriously increase the risk of fraud and abuse of funds that cannot be easily monitored.

A robust group of growers attended back-to-back meetings with the USDA sub-agencies overseeing farm programs including, the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Risk Management Agency (RMA), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Daniel Berglund, a rice farmer and crop insurance aficionado from Wharton, Texas, participated in all three of those meetings.  Berglund said, “It’s great to get a chance to meet with USDA staff that can really get in the weeds with us about technical issues and historical knowledge because of long careers in the industry.  We were able to cover a lot of ground ranging from several new insurance endorsements we’re submitting to the latest ‘practical to replant’ dates regulated by RMA.”
“Our meeting with NRCS just felt really effective, the room was brimming with excitement because of our great partnership with the agency, not to mention the $25 million in cost-share funding that’s been collectively secured by the industry through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.  Our staff have clearly built strong relationships with many of the folks within the agencies and it makes working with USDA that much easier on us when we come into town,” said Berglund.
All of the officials shared the sentiment that meeting with a unified rice industry is helpful as they begin navigating their portfolios under the new Administration.
“We think it was important to get into these agencies to reinforce our positions and expectations even before many of the Trump appointees are seated,” said USA Rice President & CEO Betsy Ward, who attended most of the Administration meetings.  “Those appointees are going to have to hit the ground running, but at least from a rice perspective, their staffs are well-briefed.”
Finally, in an annual tradition, members of the newly graduated Rice Leadership Development Class met with Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez at the Cuban Embassy to review the current state of relations between the two countries, and relay information to the Ambassador about their discussions on Cuba with Congress earlier in the week.
Class member Hudgens Jeter, an Arkansas rice farmer, said, “We left the Cuban embassy with a sense of positivity because we know the Cuban people yearn for U.S. rice and our industry is willing and able to provide it.  We just need to keep moving forward toward our common goal of opening this market.”

The annual Government Affairs Conference is a great way to blanket Washington with rice priorities over a few days.  As President Trump staffs up key agencies, USA Rice members will be called upon to engage with these new political appointees on a regular basis.