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McKinney: Branding Program Needed

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, January 27, 2023

Indiana agriculture needs a branding program to elevate its status on the national and international stage.

That's according to Ted McKinney, former undersecretary of trade and foreign agricultural affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Trump administration. A Tipton County native, McKinney currently serves in Washington, D.C. as the CEO of the National Assn. of State Departments of Agriculture. From 2014 to 2017, he also served as the director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

Last week, he returned to his home state to headline AgrIInstitute's "Thought Leaders" series. AgrIInstitute is the umbrella organization that promotes leadership development for Indiana's agriculture industry. McKinney is an early graduate of the Indiana Agricultural Leadership Program (ALP).

He spoke to a group of ag leaders and ALP class 20 members last Friday in Carmel.

McKinney said the Indiana ag industry has a number of leading ag companies, among them being Corteva and Elanco, both based in Indianapolis, along with some "quiet" companies that are leaders in their respective spaces. Among those, he listed Chore-Time Brock in Milford, Maple Leaf Farms in Leesburg and Apache Sprayers in Mooresville.

The state also is home to Purdue University and the National FFA Organization. There's also talent and expertise within the ranks of AgriNovus Indiana, Indiana Farm Bureau, ISDA, the Indiana State Board of Animal Health and other agencies.

Overall, Indiana is a great state for business, but, according to McKinney, the state's ag industry has been reticent to promote its strengths in the international arena.

"I don't think the sum of the parts is giving us a brand that we can operate from," he said. "We've got to come together and find a way to brand Indiana better."

As a former USDA trade official and current CEO of NASDA, McKinney has an eye on national and international affairs. He said ministers of agriculture from foreign nations contacted him to visit U.S. farms.

"However, when they choose states, Indiana is usually not on the list," he said.

It's not as if no one knows about Indiana agriculture. During a recent trip to Vietnam, McKinney said the Southeast Asian nation is a fan of Indiana hardwoods. Vietnam also buys corn, soybeans and poultry from the U.S. The problem is, as he looks at things from his perspective as an international trade official, "most internationals have to be reminded where Indiana is."

McKinney called for a branding initiative that would focus on Indiana's agricultural diversity and production prowess. In an interview following his speech, McKinney said the branding could involve Indiana's natural resources, like abundant water resources and hardwoods.

The agricultural branding effort, according to McKinney, would be akin to what the state is already promoting with its "Crossroads of America" slogan, to tout Indiana's strategic geographic location.

When it comes to telling the agriculture story, McKinney said, "We've just got to tell what we're doing."

More than just a PR campaign, McKinney's branding effort would involve an educational focus for young people. He said it is through education—in the form of scholarships, internships and youth educational programs—that the industry can "turn the hearts and minds" of young people toward agriculture.

He added that most ag companies currently offer internships, but he would like to see more young people headed to Washington, D.C. for policy work or to foreign countries for international trade experiences. He said there is a "slippage" in today's youth engagement.

"I'm going to start, yes, with my beloved 4-H and FFA," McKinney said. "In college, the Ag Future of America group is really exploding and on the rise. We've got a great program, but we've got to keep it alive, and we've got to keep promoting and finding a way to teach about production agriculture."

McKinney lamented that there are so few people in policy positions who have first-hand experience in production agriculture.

McKinney was raised on a family farm in Tipton County, then went on to earn a degree in agricultural economics from Purdue. Professionally, he worked for Dow AgroSciences for 19 years and for Elanco for 14 years. In the latter role, he served as the director of global corporate affairs. In January 2014, he entered public service, first with ISDA and then with USDA.

"Folks, one of the reasons, after a lot of reflection and prayer, that Julie (his wife) and I decided to stay in Washington—I had a couple of great opportunities back here—(was because) I couldn't leave the arena," he said. "There are so few people that have a farm background, as I was blessed to have, that can speak to pork production, speak to crops, speak to sustainability, speak to the family and all that."

In his former role as USDA undersecretary of trade and foreign agricultural affairs, McKinney interacted with agriculture ministers from foreign countries. He saw a need for education among those high-ranking officials.

He made four trips to Europe to promote U.S. agricultural products but had a difficult time convincing his counterparts to visit the U.S. Finally, McKinney said he persuaded the U.K.'s then-secretary of agriculture, George Eustice, to come to Washington. After meeting in the nation's capital, they visited a farm in Pennsylvania and returned to Washington.

Talking over dinner, Eustice shared with McKinney that he had learned something about U.S. agriculture—that voluntary compliance works.

"He saw how the U.S. achieves compliance through voluntary programs," McKinney said. "This showed him that they can accept U.S. poultry and our methods."

McKinney said this was an example of how "talking and getting to know people can really work."

In his role as CEO of NASDA, McKinney leads a federation of ag department directors from every U.S. state. The group involves both Republicans and Democrats.

"We get along famously," McKinney said. "You can hardly tell the political stripes of our members."

He said NASDA members spoke with one voice against the Biden administration's recent "Waters of the U.S." rule.

NASDA recently released its farm bill priorities (see page 35 of last week's issue). At the top of the list is a desire to have a farm bill that includes both nutrition and farm programs.

McKinney said he thinks the 2018 Farm Bill is a good piece of legislation and wants to continue that format going forward.

McKinney said he supports taxpayer subsidies for the Free and Reduced Lunch and Breakfast Plan. However, he cautions that some lawmakers may want to extend those benefits to weekends, summers, after-school and perhaps the entire family. Three quarters of the farm bill's current budget is devoted to the nutrition title.

"We have a good 2018 Farm Bill," McKinney said. "Let's see where it goes."

Regarding international trade, the veteran trade official said the world wants and expects U.S. ag leadership.

"I had three ministers of agriculture, unsolicited, say to me, 'We're not sure we like your president (Trump), but we sure do respect him," McKinney said, referring to his time with USDA. "Now you think about that. I've said that about a couple teachers or two. I didn't like them, but boy when I got done I really liked what they did."

At the moment, however, the importance of international affairs in food and agriculture is at a tipping point, McKinney said. This is due to COVID, the rise in populism (countries believing they can feed themselves) and the war in Ukraine.

"I don't know that I've ever seen a more interesting, strange and sometimes concerning, or even frightening, time," McKinney said.

McKinney offered a few thoughts regarding the World Trade Organization.

"The WTO is broken, plain and simple," he said. "We (the United States) were getting screwed. Large countries, OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, were just getting screwed when it came to appeals. Some of them (decisions) were just plain wrong. So, it was right to fix the WTO."

Finally, McKinney expressed concern about China's rise on the world stage and Europe's opposition to modern agriculture.

"China is on the rise and bullying," he said. "Never mind the transgressions. I'd love to see ag between our countries continue a relationship. Fight it out over (computer) chips and everything else. But the last time I checked, they need food and where else but here to do it?"

Europe, McKinney said, is trying to undermine modern agriculture, including meat production, and reshape the world according to its "misguided" point of view. Some of the EU's objectives include a requirement to have at least 25% of acreage be organic, 10-20% of acres enrolled in set-aside programs, no meat or antibiotics ever, and return to tillage methods on crop production, cutting 50% of pesticide use.

"It's becoming clear to me, that they are ready to sacrifice any and all pesticides and move to tillage—move back to great-grandpa's day—and let tillage be their solution," McKinney said, adding that this approach ignores numerous advances made here in the U.S. toward reducing soil and wind erosion and improving soil health through no-till and minimum till.

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