An enthusiastic crowd greeted USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan at an early Saturday morning session at the Southern SAWG conference on January 21. Merrigan told the group that, “We have a problem in American Agriculture. It is not a Sustainable Ag problem, it is an Ag problem. We are an ageing workforce on our working lands.” Noting the strong presence of young people in the audience in Little Rock, she commented, “As I look across the room and I see a lot of young people, I have to tell you that it is just heartwarming, and I really applaud you for taking on the challenges in American agriculture, perhaps as an avocation, hopefully as an occupation.”
One of the first actions that Merrigan took after joining the Obama administration was to launch USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative. She described this initiative as a response to a renaissance of interest in American agriculture. “People really are starting to care where their food comes from. They want to know their farmer.” The Deputy Secretary went on to admonish the audience and her own Department, saying, “If we don’t capture this momentum at this moment and time, shame on us.”
In 2010 Merrigan was stunned to learn that she had been named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She described how she finally understood that the honor wasn’t really about her – it was about what she represented. She told the farmers and activists in the audience that, “Sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, local agriculture had come of age, and Time Magazine was recognizing your work. So, thanks for getting me to that red carpet event in New York City!”
Merrigan referenced a report released last year by USDA’s Economic Research Service that found that local and regional food producers create13 jobs for every one million dollars they achieve in sales, while farmers who don’t sell locally create three jobs for one million dollars in sales. “That’s a very interesting fact”, said Merrigan, “and I think a really solid foundation for the work that we’re doing today together.”
The Deputy Secretary’s remarks to the conference are available as an audio file.