Jack Roney, who has served the American sugar industry for nearly 30 years, is set to retire from his position as the director of economics and policy analysis for the American Sugar Association (ASA). He has become a friend to the leadership of the American Sugar Cane League as well as the rank and file members.
Sugarcane continues to be a sustainable economic driver in 21st century Louisiana and a lot of credit for that goes to Roney’s work running the sugar program at the United States Department of Agriculture as well as his work in with ASA.
“His expertise and down-to-earth speaking manner has yielded immeasurable results representing sugar in a national forum,” said Jim Simon, League manager. “We’ll miss his steady hand and calm demeanor in the continuing sugar policy debate.”
Jack Pettus, the League’s Washington representative, described Roney’s role representing sugar as the industry’s “Explainomist” rather than “economist” because he had a canny ability to break down the esoteric intricacies of sugar policy into clear and simple language for national sugar policymakers, staff, and media.
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.
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 master’s 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 has worked for American farmers for 46 years, a period that spans nine Farm Bills.
Roney is a native of Bucks County, Penn. He 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 NHL hockey team, oenology, and the fine arts, and spending time with his wife, Deborah, and their two grown children, Kyle and Alison.