I guess this whole “activism” thing sometimes works. To have Kathleen Merrigan, one of Food Democracy Now’s Sustainable Dozen, named deputy secretary of agriculture is, as Tom Philpott suggests, a huge win for progressives. Say what you will about the USDA Organic program, but Merrigan, as its author and later its enforcer, has been without question battle-tested.

In his post, Tom linked to Samuel Fromartz’s perspective on Merrigan from back in November. But it’s worth digging in to the comments as well. There you’ll find none other than Frank Kirschenmann (another Sustainable Dozener about whom I’ve written) giving Merrigan his hearty endorsement.

Further down is evidence in the form of a WaPo profile from 2000 (now behind a firewall) that Merrigan didn’t shy away from battles. I was particularly struck by her conflicts with the various agricultural advisory committees — a bunch of guys who clearly lacked both social graces as well as a sense of humor:

After Merrigan was appointed in June, she immediately launched a controversial crusade to diversify those 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.

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After she blocked nominations to the Florida Tomato Committee, complaining that it hadn’t made a “significant effort” to attract women and minorities, the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, lampooned her in an article titled “Attack of the Tomato Killers.” The Packer, an agricultural publication, described her crusade as “Beltway Blindness.” In a nasty letter to Glickman, committee manager Wayne Hawkins said he was resigning and going into business: “I plan to find a female Afro-American who is confined to a wheelchair to be my partner. This way I will meet all of the government diversification requirements.”

I bet she’ll get a few questions on that at her confirmation hearings. Of course, upsetting the old boy network is the least of her qualifications. Indeed one element on her CV that’s worth noting is her involvement in the now defunct Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology which:

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spotlighted policy issues arising from [biotech related] discussions and served as a credible, honest broker, bringing together people with differing viewpoints to examine the opportunities and challenges of agricultural biotechnology.

It was considered a moderate voice in the debate — usually suggesting neither a hostile nor a laissez-faire position on GM crops. This should give us some sense of what kind of approach Vilsack himself might take as both he and President Obama are supportive of biotech research.

There is one loose end regarding Merrigan’s naming, however. Her selection begs the question whether Chuck Hassebrook of the Center of Rural Affairs — considered by some to be a leading candidate for Merrigan’s job — jumped or was pushed from the shortlist. Though it’s worth noting that Hassebrook’s policy director, Steph Larsen, is nothing but effusive over Merrigan’s pick.

In fact, of the Sustainable Dozen members, Merrigan appears to be one of the lower profile figures — but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sometimes reform has to creep rather than storm into the room. Regardless, I think we can now officially dispense with questions of Vilsack’s commitment to change. The only thing left to find out — can he deliver?

[Updated: 5pm PST] Paula Crossfield at Civil Eats hints at an answer regarding Hassebrook – that it was House Ag Chairman (and enemy of reform) Rep. Collin Peterson who “pitched a fit” of obstruction rather than Sen. Kent Conrad, as previously rumored. Of course, fit pitching is a popular sport on the Hill so, as with the Murder on the Orient Express, the knife in Hassebrook’s back probably has multiple fingerprints.

Also, Ezra found Marion Nestle to be surprisingly nonplussed by Merrigan’s nomination – for reasons I touched on above. Simply put, she doesn’t like Merrigan’s stance on transgenics. That’s definitely one area to keep on eye on.