Organic Pioneer: Kathleen Merrigan


USDA’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.

Kathleen Merrigan has served as USDA’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture since 2009. While head of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) from 1999 to 2001, she worked to develop USDA’s organic regulations, firmly establishing herself as an advocate for organic farmers. Merrigan is being honored at our Organic Pioneer Awards on September 14th, 2012, but we caught up with her in advance to learn more about how she became so committed to organics.

Even for the older generation of farmers who might not be interested in organic themselves, they can see the importance of supporting these market opportunities in order to bring in the work force for the future.

~ Deputy Secretary
Kathleen Merrigan

How did you get involved in agricultural policy?

I grew up in a rural agricultural community right next door to a farm. My parents were school teachers, but in western Massachusetts, if you grew up where and when I did, agriculture is in your blood. During my first job working in the Massachusetts state legislature with our state senator, we had severe contamination problems with pesticides including aldicarb and DDT. So severe it meant people couldn’t drink their water and were told not even to shower in it. I saw the destruction of a rural community over pesticides and realized that if this could happen in Whately, MA, it could certainly be a potential problem elsewhere. I started asking questions about our records in terms of pesticides and mapping underground aquifers. This was 1983 and the questions I was asking were relatively novel. It was clear that the domain of agricultural policy needed some new blood.

 

Were there any organic pioneers who inspired you when you were starting out?

Primarily, I always looked up to farmers. In large measure that is still true. Garth Youngberg, founder of the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, is someone who made a huge impression on me along my career path. He helped develop the USDA’s 1980 Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming and really became a champion for organic farming, eventually being fired from his University position for his outspoken support of organic methods.

He provided an analytical arm for the organic movement—to support the science that was needed on sustainability. For many years, if you were a scientist or academic working on sustainable agriculture, it was nearly impossible to get published in the existing journals. Multidisciplinary work was also really hard to get published. So both the topic of sustainable ag research and the way it was practiced meant that there wasn’t a home for resulting publications. And, as a young scientist, if you couldn’t get published, your career in academia was over. So Garth developed the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture [now known as Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems] to support both the researchers and the farmers.

Garth is not a farmer and wasn’t someone I knew when I was staring my career, but he had a big influence on me when it came to the importance of bringing science-based policy into the government.

 

Tell me a little bit about the germination of the Organic Food Productions Act. What do you think was the tipping point that allowed the idea to become reality?

I had been hired by Senator Leahy who was the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee at the time. The first thing I worked on was the (then) new Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and that was how I got to know Bob Rodale pretty well. An organic farmer from Santa Cruz came to visit the Committee staff and he was very articulate about the problems facing organic farmers nationwide. He was concerned that with the sudden market surge following the Alar pesticide scare and the “Panic for Organic” that we were experiencing, there was a real lure for deceptive practices. He talked about certifying agencies just out there for a buck who would say anything was organic, and while there were a number of private and state certification programs, there was a timely need for a national program. With the growth of the market, it was becoming difficult for the “good guys” to navigate the waters.

I was intrigued by the complexity of the problem. In 1988 I started to do my research. My initial hope was that USDA would establish a program that included standards for organic, but they refused to. So the players in the organic community got together and just started working it out. Eliot Coleman (Four Season Farm), Allen Shainsky (Petaluma Poultry), organic farmers from the Organic Farmer’s Association Council; George Siemon (Organic Valley/CROPP) was one of four dairy farmers working on it. It was a really cool time. But what happened was that while we had a Senate champion to power a bill through the Senate, both the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee were very vocal against organics.

The ace in the pocket was that we not only had the organic farmers and the nascent industry leaders, but the sophistication of the environmental activists around town who knew how to run a successful environmental lobby. That solidarity between the environmental groups and organic farming interests is not as consistent or as strong as it could be anymore, but they were a key component of making the Organic Foods Production Act a reality.

Incidentally, that farmer from Santa Cruz was Mark Lipson who was later the minster at my wedding and now works for me here at USDA.

 

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced championing organic farmers and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?

Organic remains a divided house. A lot of times when the organic industry and community have disagreements, they play them out in the press. Then the public doesn’t read all the details, they just hear negative things about organic. I remember George Siemon telling me it is like a circular firing squad. I think it was really hard to engage environmental allies when you had 12 different messages in the organic world. Environmental policy makers have very broad categories of issues. When there is conflict within the organic family, it is a great excuse for them not to bother engaging.

There is also a sort of discomfort with success. The organic community is hugely diverse, from farmers selling at a farm stand in front of their home to major corporations launching organic product lines. When I first started this journey, you could hardly find organics in D.C.; now you can’t walk two blocks without seeing something labeled as organic. What an amazing evolution in such a short amount of time. Rather than celebrating such incredible and positive growth, the message being peddled is that organic has gotten too big.

I’m glad that so many stores, including Walmart, are offering consumers the choice to buy organic foods. I want it available for all different income levels. I want to reward the farmers and ranchers for taking on such important challenges balancing both environmental responsibility on our working lands and the demands of consumers. I don’t understand the battles within the organic community. The standards are some of the most prescriptive agricultural regulations out there. Why beat these growers and processors down?

That said, organic standards are always going to be evolving. They are not an endpoint and they need continual improvement. There will always be a debate and that is healthy; it is good. But to vilify each other just doesn’t make sense to me.

 

How has the agricultural community changed over the last 10-20 years?

The biggest change I’ve seen from when I started is that farmers and ranchers have gotten really old. The reality is that one third of our farmers in this country are over 65. We are on the cusp of a major transition on our working lands. How do we repopulate our agricultural community?

Most of the young people entering agriculture today don’t come from farming families and many are engaged in organic practices and alternative marketing strategies. Many are also women. Locally grown organic is one of the things drawing young people into agriculture. Even for the older generation of farmers who might not be interested in organic themselves, they can see the importance of supporting these market opportunities in order to bring in the work force for the future. The question becomes, then: How do we overcome the great cost of farmland and fill the knowledge gaps for these new young farmers?

 

What do you think is the most important thing for consumers to understand about where their food comes from?

That, on average, farmers make just 14 cents on the retail dollar. I think there is a huge misconception that farmers are fat cats on the public dole. Our small and mid-sized farms are particularly at risk. Fred Kirschenmann described them as the “disappearing middle”: farm operation too big for a direct marketing strategy, but too small to take advantage of the big distribution networks. Growing more regional and local support systems can help undergird these farmers.

One of the perplexing problems is that USDA is a huge bureaucracy with over 40 programs in our rural program alone (many which have different definitions of “rural”, I might add).  So it’s hard for people to know where to find help.  I believe the USDA Know your Farmer, Know your Food Compass can help. It’s a great tool for navigating all the USDA resources that are available to help people in the local and regional ag communities, including those doing organic. With the Compass, people can look at the projects in their community, network with other folks across the country and basically engage with people doing similar kinds of work in their regions. We explain the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” effort in the Compass narrative and include case studies that put flesh on it.  There is a searchable map of hundreds of USDA grants and projects all across the U.S. and the Territories that are supporting this idea of people getting closer to their food and their farmers.

Facilitating a public dialog about agriculture is something we need to continue to push for. When we did the second organic rule in 2000-2001, we got all kinds of accolades for our efforts to do all-electronic rule making. The transparency of the process was innovative; instead of people going to some basement room to review comments, the public was intimately involved. This kind of dialog is much more commonplace now, but the application of technology to facilitate communication should be continued.

You wrote in 2002 for Organic Gardening magazine, “We also need to take action through government. Too few exercise their right to vote, and fewer still engage in direct advocacy, such as writing to Congress. And advocacy works.” What do you think is the best action, other than voting, folks can take to make their voices heard on food and farming issues?

There is a movement in this country that I’ve had nothing to do with in terms of being a driver, but of which I am a big admirer. The growth of food policy councils has been huge. These are organizations that help advocate and document the development of a stronger food system on a local and regional level. Some states have passed a law requiring one, sometimes a governor just appoints one, some are developed on a county or city level.

They are all about community members coming together and having conversations about what kind of food system they want to have and what their role is. School teachers, business people, cafeteria workers, mayors, consumers; what are their roles? How do they all work together to keep more food dollars in local economy (which really translates to jobs)? There is some exciting and provocative thinking that takes place in these decentralized and dynamic discussions. If people are interested in agriculture and want to engage beyond the shopping cart, food policy councils are a good way to do so. And if you don’t have a food policy council in the area now, then start one.

 

What is your personal vision? What drives you to get out of bed every day and do what you do?

There are certain hallmarks of the way I think. I’m very much an advocate of diversity. I think it comes from my work in ecology and the sustainable ag world where we know a lot about the value of diverse ecosystems. This same idea can be applied to policy and diversity of farming operations. I’ve always believed that people should have the opportunity to make their case—to have equal access. And as much as I have been a liberal Democrat all my life, I’m also a huge advocate of the market system which includes a market system of ideas. I guess I’m driven a lot of days by the excitement of trying to answer the questions: How do we allow for people to experience success? How do we remove barriers? If you live your life open to new ideas and counterintuitive results, you’ll be amazed at what can happen. I don’t like things that get locked in—good guy/bad guy discussions. It just isn’t how I think.

 

What tool couldn’t you live without?

My brother who is a ship captain says if you were stranded on an island and could only choose three items to have with you, one of them should definitely be duct tape. But, I guess the tool I couldn’t live without would be the pen.

 

Read Deputy Secretary Merrigan’s 2002 article in
Organic Gardening: Unite and Conquer.

 

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