Ray Starling, the 1996-97 National FFA Eastern Region Vice President, recently received a new position within the White House, focusing on agriculture policy.
Starling was previously Chief of Staff for U.S. Senator Thom Tillis and is a former member of the Midway FFA Chapter in North Carolina. We caught up with Ray over the phone to chat about his new role.FFA NEW HORIZONS:
First, congratulations! You were just appointed Special Assistant to the President for Agriculture, Trade and Food Assistance as part of the White House National Economic Council. What are your duties in the new role?
RAY STARLING: I will have a lot of meetings with ag folks. In fact, that’s getting busy already. Ag is an important part of the economy. We have a large group of people out there that are in very sector-specific work, so you will have pork producers, corn growers, the farm bureaus, cotton farmers, poultry producers. All of them, of course, have their own constituent groups. Part of what I’ll be doing is simply listening to them, visiting with them, making sure I understand what their priorities are.
Then there’s an internal role where I advocate for ag among my peers on the council and here at the White House. The President will have a secretary of agriculture, folks at the Department of Ag that he trusts, and he will be looking to business and industry reps to advise him on what he needs to do. But in terms of an in-house ag advisor, that becomes me. Any time we are doing an ag event, I would be involved in briefing him, getting him prepared, and certainly briefing and working with those folks that are coming in. Then I think the most fun thing is when the President sits down and meets with a group of ag leaders. I’ll have an opportunity to be in the room to help shape that agenda, shape that conversation.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: As an FFA member of the Midway FFA Chapter in North Carolina, did you imagine this particular career path for yourself when you were a Greenhand?
RAY STARLING: Certainly not this particular position. I did not at that time even know it existed. I will tell you coming out of FFA, I understood that the ag sector needed great technical experts. We needed really good farmers, we needed really good scientists, we needed really good economists, we need really good botanists, we need good ag teachers and FFA advisors, but we also need folks who can articulate on the policy side of the equation because in my view, it’s not our productivity that will be our limitation. It is our ability to advocate for the policies that make sense for us.
The FFA did give me that insight, but certainly I never thought I’d be advising the President of the United States on ag when I was back in Midway at Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: How did you get involved in FFA?
RAY STARLING: Originally, growing up, I was active in 4-H. I’m the youngest of three brothers. Both of them were involved in FFA. We worked on the farm all the time, and I saw FFA was a really good opportunity to get off the farm every now and then, and I loved it. I was an FFA nerd. I enjoyed the public speaking, the parliamentary procedure, did poultry judging. Of course, I had an active SAE, so I really saw my brothers excel in the organization and realized, “This is something I want to be a part of.” So really just following in their footsteps.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: You’ve had a very successful career in FFA and agriculture. How did FFA prepare you for your current career right now?
RAY STARLING: That’s probably your toughest question just because it could have 10 different answers. I think what FFA does well and what agricultural education does well is remind students that this is an important part of the economy and it is okay and cool to be involved in agriculture.
I think when you go to the convention and you’re surrounded by tens of thousands of students who are equally as excited about agricultural education, FFA, and the blue and gold, that gives you some sense of peace and comfort that, ‘Hey, This is a cool career path. I’m not going to let anybody else tell me anything differently.’ I think that certainly the skills are helpful.
Even this morning, I am planning meetings here at the White House and I have to be careful about who I include, I have to be careful about who I don’t include, and so you did that kind of thing as an FFA chapter officer. You planned meetings, you invited guest speakers to be a part of something. You put on a banquet. You’ve had to stand up in front of large groups of people and prepare remarks. All of those things are obviously very helpful, but I think more than any of that, it comes down to having this enthusiasm and this idea that it is A-Okay to be active in ag and FFA, just the spirit of being involved there.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: What was your supervised agricultural experience?
RAY STARLING: My SAE was very traditional to begin with. We called it oil crop production at the time, growing soybeans. I also grew pork, essentially tying into my dad’s operation. I had a phenomenal set of ag teachers at Midway High School. They were just absolutely outstanding. One of them was a horticulture expert, and so I experimented with growing bare root pepper and tomato plants and growing some ornamental crops in terms of nursery landscape stuff, such as seasonal mums. I wouldn’t have done that had it not been for the SAE component of agricultural education.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: It’s really amazing how agriculture teachers can make such an impact.
RAY STARLING: For me, I had absolutely phenomenal agriculture teachers. One, Dr. Barry Croom, is an ag educator out in Oregon now. He was at N.C. State, and prior to that he was my high school ag teacher. I had a great relationship with Glenn Howell, too. Both of them were just phenomenal teachers. They did their SAE visits. They hauled us all over the kingdom for events. They were a part of the rural family where I was from, and I can’t thank the two of them enough.
I was fortunate to go and be a counselor at FFA camp, and some stuff like that, and so I felt like I had a number of ag teachers, folks from other schools, who also mentored me. By the time I graduated from Midway and by the time I got involved as a state officer and a national officer, I felt like I had an entire community of ag teachers supporting me, so I definitely want to give credit where credit is due. It is absolutely due with them.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: You mentioned parliamentary procedure. Were there any other CDEs that you competed in?
RAY STARLING: Parli pro obviously took the most time. I was fortunate. My elder brother, who’s two years older than me, was on a state-winning parliamentary procedure team as a senior. He went off to college, and he was not able to continue to practice and compete in the national competition, so they subbed me in on the national thing, so I got to compete at the national level on parli pro.
I also participated in prepared public speaking, extemporaneous speaking and Creed speaking. I was second in Creed my freshman year in the state competition. The next year, I won extemporaneous as a sophomore. The third year, we were pretty close in parliamentary procedure. Then the fourth year, in prepared public speaking, I think I got second place.
And finally, even though I didn’t grow up on a poultry or chicken farm, or turkey farm, I did poultry judging. That was also cool and a lot of fun. Interestingly, recently I was working on an avian influenza outbreak issue, and was thinking about my days judging poultry in FFA.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: What advice would you share with FFA members or alumni who are interested in a similar line of work?
RAY STARLING: The same things FFA taught me. I believe in having a plan. I believe that the best way you prepare for the next job is to do the job you’ve got today extremely well. I am very blessed. I believe in the political and elected world—different folks are targeted for bringing different strengths to the table. In my case, I believe I got this job because I had worked hard as a staffer for a member of the ag committee and as a chief of staff for a senator in the United State Senate.
It all happens so quickly. For this position, I literally got a call at my desk at 9:20 a.m. one morning. After just a brief back and forth with the guy that was calling me, who was a Deputy Assistant to the President, he wanted to know if I could be at the White House at 10 a.m. for an interview. Forty minutes later, I’m in a cab and I’m coming through security at the White House.
I didn’t campaign for the job. I didn’t even know exactly what they were going to do with this position. I knew it was important, and I knew we needed to watch who went into that role, and how they filled it, but I was not expecting it. I think having a plan is great. Thinking through what you want to do next is great, but you’ve got to be ready to jump at opportunities when you get them. Having a chance to work at the White House, it’s a once in a lifetime thing.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: What are you hoping to accomplish in your new role?
RAY STARLING: Agriculture is a huge part of our economy. It’s a huge part of our social fabric. It’s a huge part of who we are as Americans in terms of our history, and so the main thing I want to accomplish is to make sure that the agriculture community knows that they have someone advocating for them inside the White House. The fact that the President has filled this position, and has a dedicated position at the White House for agriculture, is I think a testament to his interest in it and a testament to the fact that we are going to be taken seriously and have a seat at the table.
I think it’s hard to guess what our policy outcomes will be, and what our accomplishments will be, but I think the biggest accomplishment is even if things don’t always go our way in terms of a policy decision, having a seat at the table and being able to at least be invited to and to influence that conversation is important.
FFA NEW HORIZONS: What is one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture, and how can FFA members help?
RAY STARLING: When I think about limits on what we’re able to do in the ag sector, one of our biggest limitations is access to talent. It’s access to talent in the ag ed classroom and having wonderful well-equipped teachers who are excited about mentoring and guiding students. It’s a challenge in terms of producing the next generation of farmers, and it’s a challenge for those who harvest our crops that we may not see but during certain times of the year. I think from a big picture perspective, the biggest challenge is having talent to help us do what we do best and that’s feed ourselves, and feed part of the world.