Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s upcoming departure has raised a lot of questions about the Obama administration’s commitment to organic and local food production, but she said in an exclusive interview Wednesday that it will have almost four more years to institutionalize the changes she has made at the department.
Merrigan has been the champion of the organic and local food movement since the late 1980s, when she helped then-Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., write the Organic Standards Act. After leaving Leahy’s staff, she taught at Tufts University and worked in the Clinton administration.
The Senate’s unanimous confirmation of her appointment as deputy secretary in 2009 was considered a crowning achievement for farmers and foodies who thought USDA had long provided disproportionate benefits to conventional commodity and meat producers. Merrigan responded by creating the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, which has required every division of USDA to think about how it can help local food producers prosper.
When Merrigan announced she would “be leaving” the Agriculture Department on May 3, she did not say whether she had resigned or had been asked to go.
“It has been an ambitious first term,” Merrigan said. “From implementing the 2008 farm bill, improving school meals, expanding opportunities for American farmers, spending countless hours in the White House situation room, to shepherding USDA budgets through challenging times, it has been an honor to play a small part in history. I hope that during my tenure I was able to help open USDA’s doors a little wider, inviting new and discouraged constituencies to participate in USDA programs.”
Merrigan has always said publicly that she does not oppose large-scale commodity production or genetic modification of seeds and only wanted to make room for USDA to assist local and organic production. Conventional and biotech farmers and their advocates have considered her efforts at best to be silly, small-scale activities that divert USDA personnel from the serious business of producing food on a large scale and increasing exports—and at worst, to be hostile to their interests. Some of her fans think those interests forced her out.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release that he “deeply” appreciated Merrigan’s service and that she “helped USDA achieve record results over the past four years,” but he did not say he regretted her departure.
Vilsack has publicly supported Merrigan’s ideas and made them—along with conventional production, exports, biofuels, and rural development—part of his integrated vision for the future of a rural America that can hold and attract young people. But the terse words Merrigan and Vilsack used in their statements have led to speculation that he was jealous of her public profile.
In the interview, Merrigan did not discuss whether or not she was leaving willingly, but she said, “It is a good time to depart, with a Democratic president who has talked about local and regional food production and a first lady who has been very supportive of these issues. It is very important that the work is embraced by the secretary, by the bureaucracy. It should not depend on one person.”
There is no question that Merrigan is the most prominent Agriculture deputy secretary in memory and that she will be remembered as a singular figure with her own reputation. At her urging, USDA has instituted tough standards to protect the integrity of the organic seal, signed equivalency agreements with Canada and Europe, increased crop insurance and conservation support for organic producers, created a grant program that provides locally produced foods for school meals, used government programs to build hoop houses to extend the growing season for vegetables in cold climates, and even made the foods sold in USDA’s cafeterias healthier.
While Merrigan may have succeeded in convincing the bureaucracy that local and organic agriculture are important, her support still seems to be concentrated politically on the coasts and in college towns. But politics may follow production. Merrigan said that an interactive map she has developed at USDA shows that organic and local food production “is alive” in Alaska, Kansas, Virginia, and other places where it does not have a high profile.
Merrigan said she is putting off job hunting until she leaves but hopes in the future to focus on the changing demographics of agriculture, including beginning farmers and land-owning widows. She also said she believes that many of the changes she instituted at USDA to help small farmers navigate the bureaucracy could be used in other agencies. “I am not just about the substance of these issues,” she said. “I am also a public-policy person.”
Merrigan said she made one final point to political appointees in a speech announcing her departure: She is not leaving for family reasons. She said she disagrees completely with Anne Marie Slaughter, the former State Department official who questioned in The Atlantic whether women in big jobs can have it all. Merrigan has a husband and two children and tends to her father, who is in an assisted-living facility. Unlike a woman who works at McDonald’s and has the same responsibilities, Merrigan said, she has had staff who have asked when her father had a problem what they do could do to rearrange her schedule. Calling the position of Agriculture deputy secretary “one of the jobs of privilege,” Merrigan said, “I don’t want anyone to say I am leaving for family reasons. It is not fair to women in the workforce.”
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.