In Their Words: Kathleen Merrigan


OPN caught up with Kathleen Merrigan, former United States Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for  “In Their Words”. Kathleen provides insight on new USDA leadership, the Organic Farming Research Foundation and future policy opportunities.

Kathleen is currently Executive Director of Sustainability at the George Washington University, where she leads the GW Sustainability Collaborative, GW Food Institute, and serves as Professor of Public Policy.

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From 2009-2013, Kathleen was U.S. Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As Deputy Secretary, Kathleen created and led the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative to support local food systems; was a key architect of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign; and made history as the first woman to chair the Ministerial Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. 

OPN Connect:  What is keeping you busy these days?  

I am launching a Food Policy Leadership Institute this fall. I am looking for young leaders who want to improve their chops on policy.  If you want to invest in a young leader, to inspire and grow new organic policy leaders send them my way or sponsor someone. The tuition is $25,000; the course is mostly on line with three weeks of boot camp here in DC, culminating in a farm tour with Mark Lipson. I’ve put together a dream-team faculty.

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I ask readers of OPN and organic industry leaders: who do you want to invest in to be our next generation of organic policy leaders?

OPN Connect:  What is the source of your passion and commitment for organic agriculture?

My first job out of college was working for my state Senator and there was really bad ground water contamination from pesticide use. These chemicals had leached into farmer’s wells and I saw that we needed to think about agricultural inputs differently. This was 1982-83 and I asked “what records do we have on the pesticides we use? Let’s overlay that information with underground aquafers.” These were like science fiction questions at the time. Ultimately we had to put a public water system in that rural community to save the farm families.  

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So I didn’t immediately start on organic but thought “there has got to be a better way.” That’s always been my passion, trying to fight to get the science & the resources necessary to help farmers do better.

The vast majority of farmers want to do better. Despite our precarious times and divisive rhetoric, I believe we all want the same thing.  

OPN ConnectNow that we have a new USDA Secretary of Agriculture, how can the organic industry work with rather than against this new leadership?

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I watched Secretary Perdue testify before the House Ag committee and I saw him address two questions on organic. He essentially said that organic is  part of a diverse portfolio and we need  a strong program. Nothing alarmed me.  

Earlier this year Moveon.org collected 40,000 signatures on a petition to block his confirmation. Heck, I’m sorry the Democrats lost, but wake up! The reality is that we face new people with new priorities. It makes no sense to get on the  wrong side of the new team before they step into office.

 I hope the organic industry finds opportunities to introduce Secretary Perdue to the challenges faced by the organic industry and share what’s great about organic and cultivate a friendship with him and his team.

Organic has never been a Democrat or Republican issue. A lot of my organic industry friends are serious lifelong Republicans and we should not make the assumption that a Republican administration won’t be supportive of organic.

OPN Connect If you could change our industry for the better, what would that look like and how do you think we can accomplish this considering the factions that currently exist?

I think we’re struggling to articulate a compelling organic narrative these days. People are seeking food with a story- they want to connect. We have lost some of the organic storyline over time. Local has become bigger than organic and there are a gazillion market claims and more likely to emerge. I worry about the term regenerative and the buzz around it, as if it’s something better than organic- we need to look under the hood folks! Most of these claims aren’t as transparent as organic.

There are other challenges as well to the organic story. The self-destructive politics within organic confuses consumers, particularly when warring factions take their battles public and small skirmishes end up with big front page headlines.  Having the government “regulate” organic is ultimately a good thing, but it caused organic to lose that outsider, fighting the system aspect that people like.  Some of the storyline is lost because organic got big and people think big is bad.

We have to find a way to make big “good” because I don’t want organic to be some niche thing only accessible to wealthy coastal people. I want the family surviving on SNAP in the Midwest to eat organic.  So scale does matter!

Organic is the best regulated industry that we have. Yet, it’s still just a tiny part of the marketplace, it’s underfunded in terms of research, it’s an uphill battle for farmers, we need to transition more land to organic so we aren’t importing so much. I could go down the whole litany but the overall challenge requires a “big think” by industry leaders to find the story line - it’s pressing.  

OPN Connect:  Tells us more about your passion for OFRF and the work that they are doing? What is your big audacious goal for this group?  

It was an honor to be their luncheon speaker at the anniversary luncheon gala at Expo West. People should not miss it next year!  

I remember OFRF when it was a little baby organization. I was a board member early on. I think OFRF does really important work helping farmers conduct research.  When I go to talk with people on the hill about organic one of things I like to say is that organic farmers are out there doing all of this research on their own dime on their own fields and people are learning from them. Even if you are a conventional farmer you may adopt practices that organic farmers have pioneered.  OFRF is not big money – or at least not yet (hint) -- but it’s been very influential.   I am proud of their work and continue to serve on their advisory committee.

OPN Connect:  There is a new bill being written right now in the house called the Organic Agriculture Research Act. Are you working with the authors?  

I am typically called upon by Congressional members and staff when they are contemplating an organic initiative. After all the years working on organic issues I am a known player and work with both Democrats and Republicans to get figure out how to navigate this town.  I work with other organizations like NSAC.  None of our organizations are big, none is well funded but we collaborate and reinforce one another’s work.  

OPN Connect: In your opinion what should our biggest goals be as we go into the 2018 Farm bill process?

The NOP should have “Stop Sales Authority” much like the FDA has. If they are concerned about a product not being compliant they should be able to stop its sale. NOP could use more authority over compliance.  It would be lovely to have the Organic Agriculture Research Act included.

My ambitions for the 2018 Farm Bill are fairly limited. The members and leadership have made it clear they want to bring cotton & dairy back in a big way – those two things alone will mean most of the extra money is taken.   With everything going on in this town I do not anticipate an ambitious farm bill.  We will still have to put in hours and time to make sure nothing bad happens.

Two issues I predict movement on, given bipartisan interest:  food waste and support for the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

How does the organic agenda align with these issues?  In particular, I think there is opportunity to connect the need to transition more land to organic production with the need to support young people getting into farming. Most young people coming into agriculture aren’t inheriting land and equipment and they are strapped with college debt.

OPN Connect: Any final thoughts for our readers?  

Organic is not a partisan issue. When I started in organic, Senator Patrick Leahy was the prime mover and shaker. He gave up political capital to make it happen. Senator Richard Lugar who was the top Republican at the time drained a few veins to make it happen too. So the bipartisan process was there from the very start.

Now more than ever we need young leaders. Let’s double down get people ready for the next opportunity. People shouldn’t give up on Washington, what goes on in this town matters too much. It doesn’t take long to undo things and you need investments to have the power to say no. It’s a different world today and we have to redefine success, not pull up stakes.

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