Ray Starling was dragged by his mother to the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center to participate in 4-H as a young boy. This week, his selection by the White House as agriculture adviser for President Donald Trump’s administration was made official.
An Autryville native and graduate of Midway High School, Starling will serve as special assistant to the President for Agriculture, Trade and Food Assistance. He previously served as chief of staff to U.S. Senator Thom Tillis.
“It is humbling,” said Starling of the appointment, noting the outpouring of support and well-wishes he has received from his hometown contingent in Sampson and others. “It’s extremely gratifying. I would not be here were it not for the community that I came from. It’s hard not to get emotional about it.”
Starling’s involvement in agriculture began with early life on the farm and continued in his later life during his time as a university professor, legislative liaison and policy adviser. He grew up on a diversified family farm and cites his parents M.F. and JoAnne Starling, and his two older brothers, Willi and Steve, for being big influences in his life. His brothers served as his mentors and are still very much involved in agriculture, Willi in Autryville and Steve in Winterville.
When Starling called home during the midst of the White House interviews, his mother was overjoyed to the point of tears. His father was already detailing the things that needed to be done when his son got the job.
“They’re going to keep me grounded, which is great,” Starling said. “My parents and my brothers really paved the way for me to be successful in FFA. The (Sampson) community, I hope they take pride in this, because it is as much about them as it is about me. I would not have this opportunity had I not been raised by the entire village. It’s really cool to have that support from people back home.”
At Midway High, Starling was involved extensively with the Future Farmers of America (FFA), serving as local president and subsequently as national FFA vice president. He stayed active in FFA during college, serving as a national officer in 1996-97. He received a B.S. in Agricultural Education from N.C. State in May 1999 and similarly graduated with honors from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in 2002.
From 2007-12, Starling was the general counsel and a legislative liaison at the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDACS) before going on to serve as general counsel and senior agriculture policy adviser to Tillis when he was speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives. Upon Tillis’ election to the U.S. Senate in 2014, Starling moved to Washington to continue serving as his general counsel and senior policy adviser.
At the beginning of 2016, Tillis tapped Starling to become his chief of staff, the highest ranking employee in his U.S. Senate office.
“It was really an honor to get to do that,” said Starling of the job under Tillis.
He said it was “a reach” just to serve in that capacity. Now, he will be an ag adviser in the White House, a position he started last week.
“I’m nervous, realizing the gravity of what we have to do,” Starling conceded. “We’re entering our fourth year of declining incomes for farmers. Prices for their commodities are generally falling. There is a lot of supply worldwide and we have a strong U.S. dollar right now. That is a good thing, but it does have a flipside. Our foreign buyers cannot buy as much of our product when the U.S. dollar is strong.”
The farm economy is getting “tighter and tighter,” he noted.
“What is impressive and exciting is that the President recognizes that and wanted somebody at the White House to do ag policy,” Starling remarked. The position Starling now holds has stood vacant for the last couple years. “A lot of the ag groups across the country are excited. We have a seat at the table. That is a positive thing for the ag sector.”
Many expect prompt results from Trump and want to see the federal government get things done, Starling said.
“There is pressure, because we want to deliver,” he attested. “(Agriculture) is a very important segment where we know we need to (deliver). When the ag economy does well, the American economy will often follow. As inspiring and fun as it is to walk into the White House and the West Wing, we have a lot of work to do. I just want to stay humble about it, and hope people will pray for me and the things we’re doing up here.”
That is not a one-man fight. Starling pointed to the many “great people” who understand the importance of the agriculture, advocate for it and want to see policies that support farmers.
“It’s daunting, but I don’t have to carry the whole load,” Starling attested.
In addition to his work with the NCDACS, Starling was an adjunct professor of agricultural and food law and policy at UNC-Chapel Hill and Campbell University. After stints as a law clerk to a N.C. Supreme Court Justice, and then as an associate at a firm, he took the position as legislative liaison at the NCDACS.
His agricultural experience is extensive in the legal field.
Active in the American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) for many years, Starling has taught and organized numerous courses at the annual meeting, served on the conference planning committee and received the 2012 American Agricultural Law Leadership Award. In 2013, he was elected to serve on the National Board of Directors of AALA. For several years, he taught a continuing legal education (CLE) class on agricultural law at the N.C. Festival of Legal Learning.
Starling was previously named a “50 To Watch in Business” in the Raleigh-Durham area and was named a “rising star” by his fellow members of the bar. He was a 2011 Marshall Memorial Fellow and received the 2011 Honor Award from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. Additionally, Starling was recognized by N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as its Outstanding Young Alumnus in 2010.
Starling’s wife Tina has a Ph.D. in mathematics, previously taught at N.C. State and now teaches at the prestigious Potomac School in McLean, Va., an independent institution where their daughter Victoria, who turns 7 on Monday, also goes to school. The family lives in that area.
“The Lord has just worked out a number of things for us,” said Starling on the progression over the last several years that has culminated with the White House appointment. “(Tina) sacrificed. She’s not from a farm family, but she’s bought into the whole ag thing and has been to probably a thousand speeches to hear how awesome we are in the ag sector. I’m very grateful for her support as well.”
Reaction to Starling’s appointment
In the wake of the White House’s announcement of Starling’s appointment, colleagues in Raleigh and Washington, D.C., issued statements praising the decision and said it bodes well for agriculture as a whole.
“We will greatly miss Ray’s tremendous leadership, his warm sense of humor and his genuine passion for working on behalf of all North Carolinians,” said Tillis, “but the silver lining is that our state’s loss is America’s gain. There is simply no one better qualified than Ray to advise the President on agriculture and trade policy.”
Starling, Tillis said, has been a lifelong champion for North Carolina’s agricultural industry, and will now play a major role in “fulfilling the administration’s plans to support our nation’s farmers and ranchers and revitalize rural America,” the senator noted.
“This is an incredible honor for Ray that is more than well deserved, and it’s also a testament to how respected North Carolina’s agricultural community is across the nation. I wish Ray and his family all the best in this new and exciting chapter, and I look forward to working closely with him to advocate for our state’s agricultural and rural communities.”
“I’m glad we are going to have a North Carolinian working on agriculture policy in the White House,” Senator Richard Burr added. “Ray Starling has a deep understanding of the agriculture industry and I know he will work to promote policies that will help our nation’s economy thrive.”
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler also commented on the bittersweet nature of Starling’s departure.
“I feel tremendously fortunate to have had Ray Starling on my staff because of his commitment to the farming community here in North Carolina, and his dedicated work to ensure good agricultural policies statewide and nationally,” said Troxler.
Troxler said he hated losing Starling to Tillis’ office, but took comfort in knowing that North Carolina had a passionate and extremely knowledgeable ally in D.C. He offered his gratitude to the Trump administration for filling what he called a “vital position.”
“Ray understands the landscape in Washington, but also understands the day-to-day challenges farmers face because of his eastern North Carolina farming roots,” Troxler stated. “He is a bright star and I am proud that he will have the opportunity to serve agriculture families and agribusinesses at the highest level.”
U.S. Rep. David Rouzer also congratulated his friend and colleague Starling on his appointment, touting the President on his decision.
“I’ve known Ray for many years and have had the pleasure of working with him on a wide range of issues important to farm families and rural communities all across this country. He will be an exceptional contributor to the advancement of common sense policies benefiting all Americans. The President and his team could not have made a better choice.”
“Ray Starling has been and will be a strong advocate for North Carolina’s family farmers,” added Andy Curliss, CEO of the N.C. Pork Council, in another prepared statement. “He has a tremendous appreciation for agriculture and is immensely qualified to advise the President on issues involving agriculture and trade policies. We look forward to continuing to work together with him.”
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