April 24, 2014

One of Us?

Kathleen Merrigan is working hard to change federal agriculture policy from inside the USDA.

By Marian Burros

Until last spring, phrases like “sustainable agriculture,” “local food,” and “mobile slaughterhouses” were only whispered in the halls of the Department of Agriculture, the agency where industrial agriculture and biotechnology reigned supreme.

Then Kathleen Merrigan—a 50-year-old assistant professor at Tufts University who had been teaching agricultural policy for the previous eight years—became the deputy secretary.

No Warm Welcome

Also a veteran politician and policy wonk, Merrigan began an arduous task: to make the agency rethink its role. By September, Merrigan (second in command to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) introduced an initiative to rebuild the once-thriving local and regional food systems that can produce ecologically and socially responsible food, an idea to which the agency had hardly given the time of day.

Merrigan named it “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” The program, which is aimed at local farmers and sustainable agriculture, farmers markets, and value-added-products, suddenly has agribusiness worried.
The chairman of the Iowa Corn Production Board, Tim Burrack, said modern agriculture is coming under attack and what he heard at the agency’s annual outlook conference in February “is radically different from what has taken place in the first 36 years of my career.” To Merrigan, he said, “This is not the USDA that people in the Midwest are familiar with.”

Unsaid was that Burrack didn’t like what he was hearing—perhaps because he’s worried that the subsidies his farm has been receiving from USDA, $1.1 million since 1995, might stop.

Merrigan’s response to him is the one she gives to all sides: “Well, you know, the USDA is a big place and there’s room in the tent for everyone.”

A New Agenda

What Merrigan is doing—with relatively small amounts of money from the 2008 farm bill, much smaller than the budget for industrial agriculture and biotechnology—is making the agency pay attention to both the little guy and the midsize farmer. She has found that the department is filled with people who want to work on projects to help them. “There are people coming out of their doors from the bowels of the bureaucracy saying, ‘Thank you. I’ve been wanting to work on this for years. I’ve never had this kind of work sanctioned.’ ”

When she got to the agency last spring, none of the money set aside in the 2009 budget for local food had been used. She recounted her exchanges with others at USDA: “ ‘How much money has gone into local food?’ Answer: ‘None yet.’ It takes a bureaucracy a long time to understand and embrace new imperatives unless you have someone pushing. So I came and I pushed. I asked, ‘What are you doing creatively to implement the law?’ ” And then she offered some more ideas.

Merrigan imagines more mobile slaughterhouses to serve small farmers who have no access to processing their animals and more medium-sized farms that can supply seasonal produce to 2,000 CSA (community supported agriculture) members, each paying $500. She imagines finding ways to make it easier for farms to sell to schools and having an organic program in which organic standards are strictly enforced.

As she wrote in an August 2009 memo, “I suspect that many USDA programs are under-utilized by those seeking to build local and regional food systems. I would like to play the role of match-maker during this Administration. By this, I mean I will work to help USDA program administrators to understand how our programs may better serve your efforts to build local and regional food systems as well as highlight for you USDA programs that present great opportunity for the work that you do.”

While her many supporters think she should have a lot more money to accomplish her goals, she thinks she can accomplish a lot with what she’s got. Asked if she is satisfied with her slice of the 2011 agriculture budget for which she is responsible, she said, “Yes.”

Merrigan always knows when to elaborate and when to be politic.

No Sellout

Her talent for navigating Washington is the trait Dan Barber, visionary owner-chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside New York City, admires most in her. “I think she is the smartest woman I know,” he said. “What’s so intriguing about her is her remarkable ability to be political and still have a strong set of values. Throughout her career, she has been able to further the principles of real sustainability without being a sellout. It takes a lot of political savvy to pull the right levers.”

Merrigan has spent years learning the art of politics and knows everyone. She worked for Senator Patrick Leahy when he was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. She was the power behind the federal organic standards, managing to get them passed without harmful amendments.

Her last job in Washington was as the administrator of the Agriculture Marketing Service in the Clinton administration. When she came back to Washington after the 2008 election to lobby for a job in the Obama administration, it was not for anything as high level as deputy secretary. But many of her politically powerful friends lobbied for something much loftier. “I did not expect this job,” she said.

Fighting for the Underdog

She’s making the most of it to help the little guy, the person she has always looked out for. “I was always the kid standing up for other kids,” she said. “My parents wanted to be very inclusive, not to be judgmental. My daily mantra with my kids: Be kind.”

Her 12-hour days take her out of the house before her children are up. But her husband, a law school professor, makes it possible. “I don’t have to make difficult choices because he’s a great father and really great cook, and he picks up the slack,” she said as she sat in her spacious high-ceilinged office around the corner from Secretary Vilsack’s.
Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said Merrigan is off to a good start. But, he added, “All of this will be a drop in the bucket if the overall policy context doesn’t shift. To make a lasting impression, it has to be institutionalized.”

Merrigan has no illusions. So far she gives her performance a B. (“I was always a tough grader,” she said.) She feels she will have accomplished what she set out to do at the end of four years “if organic agriculture is in a stronger place within this bureaucracy, if local and regional [food systems] are working well, if I can help small farm operations grow so they can supply more of their income, and if I can help family farmers survive.”

“My aspirations are so great,” she said, “I won’t give myself an A-plus until ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ is having a major impact.”

Marian Burros was on staff at The New York Times for 27 years and still writes for them. She has lived in the Washington area since 1959, and at one time or other, she worked for The Washington Post and the late, lamented Washington Star and Washington Daily News. She was also a consumer reporter for D.C.’s WRC-TV. The author of 13 cookbooks, she has been writing about small farms and the pleasures of local food since the 1980s.

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