U.S. Department of Sustainable Agriculture?

You may have noticed that we at Southern SAWG are making a big deal of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan speaking at our conference. Frankly, we wouldn’t do this for just any person in a high government position. While we encourage all people in government to attend our conference and exchange ideas with farmers and others, not all have been equally encouraging of us. So we are a bit wary about who gets the microphone under our banner. 

Why is Kathleen Merrigan different? Because she is the first person to serve in such a high post at USDA – second in command – who comes from the sustainable food movement. While the position demands her to serve Americans with differing viewpoints, and rightly so, she brings a deep understanding of the principles of sustainable agriculture and local food systems to her office every day.

Before becoming Deputy Secretary, Merrigan served for eight years as Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment graduate program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. While there, she directed a group of projects designed to stimulate community gardens, develop regional marketing strategies between consumers and local farmers, and promote food and gardening education in local schools.

From 1987-92 she was a Senior Staff Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, where she worked as the Chief Science and Technology Advisor to then Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). During that time she was a leading force and primary author for the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, requiring the USDA to develop national standards for organic food. When the USDA finally offered a plan in 1997 that allowed genetic engineering, irradiation and the use of sewage sludge in organics, Merrigan helped drum up an unheard-of 275,603 public comments to make revisions and get it right.

From 1994-99 Merrigan worked as a Senior Analyst for the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, an organization which promoted research and education in sustainable agriculture. During that time, she also served on the National Organic Standards Board. From 1986-87, she worked on pesticide issues as a Special Assistant to the Chief of Regulatory Affairs for the Texas Department of Agriculture under populist Jim Hightower.

Merrigan also was Administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service from 1999 to 2001 under an appointment by President Bill Clinton. Upon entering office, according to a 2000 profile in the Washington Post, she launched a controversial crusade to diversify the white-male-dominated advisory committees, forcing them to establish outreach plans to recruit women, minorities and disabled people. In many cases, she refused to forward their nomination slates to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman until she was satisfied with their commitment to diversity.

Although Merrigan grew up in rural Massachusetts (her grandfather was a farmer, and her father, a teacher, sold farm products every summer), and not rural Mississippi, we still feel that she is one of us.

If you are in Little Rock with us next week, I encourage you to attend the breakfast talk by Kathleen Merrigan. You will hear her unique perspective as someone who has worked for sustainable agriculture for over 25 years both inside and outside the beltway. And you can show her and the USDA that there is a strong movement for sustainable agriculture in the South.