One of the most influential members of the U.S. sugar industry for nearly the past 50 years is set to retire. Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis for the American Sugar Association, will call it a career in August 2021.
Roney has held his position at the ASA since 1996. His efforts focus on the development, implementation and defense of U.S. sugar policy and on the implications of multilateral trade negotiations and other trade policy topics for the U.S. sugar industry.
“He has played a very critical role in our industry,” noted Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.
In 1977, Dawson Ahalt, the deputy assistant secretary for economics and founder of the World Agricultural Outlook Board, selected Roney to be the first director of information for the new agency. At 26, Roney was the youngest agency information director at USDA by more than a decade. Subsequently, one of Roney’s several key contributions to the agriculture industry was founded. Roney was closely involved in the creation of the monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report (WASDE), which remains pivotal for global agriculture to this day.
“The reason for putting that together was to get expertise together — the commodity, country, production and marketing analysts — and expand the outlook work of USDA to include the outlook in foreign countries, in addition to the U.S. We are increasingly exporting more product and, in some cases, importing more product. It was important to know what was going on with the rest of the world,” said Roney.
In 1981, Roney was selected for a USDA program that sponsored him to return to graduate school full-time. During this leave of absence, he completed a Master of International Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington. His mastoral thesis, later published in SAIS’s Foreign Affairs magazine, was on the decision-making process behind, and viability of, the grain embargo that President Jimmy Carter had imposed upon the Soviet Union following their 1980 invasion of Afghanistan. At USDA, Roney had been tasked with defending the unpopular embargo with the public.
When Roney returned to the World Board in 1982, he switched career paths and became an economist, working in livestock and then grains. In 1985, he became the Board’s first sugar and specialty crops analyst and chair of the newly created Interagency Sugar Estimates Committee. The ISEC is responsible for developing all WASDE sugar forecasts.
“What became clear to me very quickly was that the sugar market was very fascinating,” said Roney. “There was a lot going on. The U.S. is a major producer, sugar has a USDA commodity program, it’s traded on futures markets, and it’s often the subject of trade policy controversy.”
In 1989, following 15 years at USDA, Roney accepted the opportunity to be the Washington Representative for the then 160-year-old Hawaiian sugar industry. He was with the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association, representing the industry on all matters germane to federal policy and serving on the Executive Board of the American Sugar Alliance until sadly, HSPA closed its Washington office in 1996, after 99 years in existence.
It was then the ASA created the position of director of economics and policy analysis for Roney. He has served in the position ever since.
Looking back, Roney says a few major challenges that he has been faced with stick out over the course of his career. The first involved helping people to understand what the world market for sugar is and why it’s really not fair to compare U.S. prices to world prices.
Sugar in the U.S. is an imported commodity, and many developing countries that want to do trade agreements with the U.S. want access to the U.S. sugar market. Due to that, another major challenge is trying to dissuade the U.S. government from giving away chunks of the U.S. sugar market to foreign producers.
“As far as the world price is concerned, the Sweeteners Users Association is the food manufacturers, who are our valued customer, but they are also our political opponents because they are always going to Congress to say, ‘You have to get sugar prices down.’ One of the things that they argue is that U.S. sugar prices are often double the so-called world price for sugar,” said Roney. “One of the biggest challenges of my career is to help people understand that that is not a fair comparison.
Roney said that the so-called world price of sugar is really just a dump market for surplus created by subsidies around the world. The world prices tend to average only about half the world average cost to produce sugar.
“We have to go to great lengths to help people understand that there are a tremendous number of subsidies in sugar producing countries and that they cause surpluses in those countries. To keep their markets balanced, they will dump their surplus on the world market for whatever price it’ll bring. What we really do at U.S. sugar policy is try to provide a buffer to that world dump market sugar so that our efficient American producers are not put out of business by foreign producers that are no more efficient than we are, but they might be more heavily subsidized,” Roney explained.
Another challenge, according to Roney, has been every time there is a trade negotiation, it seems as though there is a temptation to trade away access to the U.S. sugar market from our producers to other countries.
“There has always been a little bit of tension there between sugar and the government and sometimes between sugar and other export crops,” said Roney. “They want to increase access to foreign markets but we’ve helped them to understand that shouldn’t come at the expense of sacrificing the U.S. market.”
Roney’s tireless and steadfast labor over the years has made him the highly regarded individual he is in the sugar industry today and, without a doubt, has been one of the industry’s biggest assets over the years. Markwart says Roney’s diligent work has been invaluable to the industry.
“Jack is known around the world for his work,” said Markwart. “Because the rest of us speak for a segment of the domestic sugar industry, he is the one who can speak for both beet and cane. That is why he takes the lead role when talking to the press. The press oftentimes, when covering a story, don’t really know much about our industry. Jack is also a teacher in those instances.
“Jack has the highest level of integrity. He knows that whatever he puts out, he has to stand behind. If you were to interview people around the country that know Jack and have worked with him, they would simply say, ‘We trust him because he is honest, fair, thoughtful and gracious.’ That’s what you need out of a leader in your industry,” Markwart said.
Markwart also said that Roney is great at mining the right data to be able to make arguments for the domestic sugar industry. He is able to pack data into words and graphics that are easy to understand and has the ability to go any place, any time, at any venue and promote and defend the domestic sugar industry. Roney was a regular presenter at the Sweetener Users Association annual meeting.
“They were always attacking him,” said Markwart. “That’s going into the jaws of the lion. He would go in and make our case.”
Roney admits it was no easy task to present in front of the sweetener users.
“That has to be one of the most challenging things I’ve done,” he said. “It really was like going into the lion’s den, but what I would try to do is to not be defensive, not try to attack, but try to be calm and credible and just try to, as gently as I could, point out and back up with data that their attacks against sugar policy were really unfounded. I was able to stay fairly unrattled. There would be some tough questions, all of them pretty negative toward me, but I found a way to maintain a calm demeanor and keep it factual. I was always careful to make statements and explanations that were rooted in fact. I think one of the things that have really been a key part of my career has been credibility — my personal credibility and the credibility of the American Sugar Alliance.”
Roney is not only respected by his colleagues within the sugar industry, but as well as adversaries on the sweetener users side.
“Jack has been such a great guy to work with, and occasionally against. Over the years, we’ve developed a friendship,” said Randy Green, a sweetener user consultant. “I really think highly of him.”
Green can attest, Roney faced some tough questions during his presentations at the Sweetener Users meetings.
“He got some critical questions,” said Green. “The growers and the processors on one side and the industrial users on the other rely on each other. The users value the domestic industry and the domestic industry values its customers. There are often sharp disagreements on policies for commodities and sugar is definitely one of them. Jack has really been an able spokesperson for the sugar growing community over the years. The sugar policies of the U.S. have no more able defender than Jack Roney, that’s for sure.”
Roney has worked for American farmers for 46 years, a period that spans nine Farm Bills.
Roney is a native of Bucks County, Penn. He is proud, and considers himself extremely blessed, to have been able to overcome childhood polio to forge a gratifying athletic career. He co-captained the varsity swimming and water polo teams at Fordham University in New York City.
Roney speaks German and some French. When he’s not analyzing or defending the U.S. sugar industry, he spends his free time enjoying sports, especially his Washington Capitals, oenology, and the fine arts, and spending time with his wife, Deborah, and their two grown children, Kyle and Alison.