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  • USDA downplays own scientist’s research on ill effects of Monsanto herbicide

    Sure, the crops are genetically engineered to withstand Roundup; but what about the soil? What would happen if a USDA scientist discovered that one of the most commonly used pesticides on the planet with a reputation for having saved millions of tons of US soil from erosion was — rather than a soil savior — […]

  • King Corn airs complaints about USDA

    Obama’s ag policy has come under justifiable criticism from the sustainable food movement–see here and here–for its aggressive pro-biotechnology and pro-trade policies. But it has also managed to enrage industrial-ag interests, too, with its “Know your Farmer” program and other gestures toward alternative food. King Corn, it turns out, is a sensitive sovereign. Check this […]

  • USDA’s Deputy Secretary discusses local, organic farming

    Cross-posted from Civil Eats. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan It was by no means Kathleen Merrigan’s first trip to the Ecological Farming Conference (EcoFarm). But when the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture stood at a podium to address last week’s annual gathering of farmers, retailers, processors, and advocates, it was clear she had never had […]

  • USDA sustainable-ag czar Merrigan hits youtube

    Way back in August 2006, I wrote a column arguing that farmers in northern areas could grow a lot more vegetables in the winter, if the USDA would invest in research and infrastructure for it. I wrote: If we wanted to make that vision come true for the nation’s northern climes, all it would take […]

  • Kathleen Merrigan is a progressive's dream pick for the USDA

    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.

    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."

  • Obama taps a real reformer, Kathleen Merrigan, for deputy USDA secretary

    Last time a president had the occasion to name a deputy USDA secretary, I had a rhetorical cow, man. Back in 2005, President Bush chose Chuck Conner, a man who had previously worked as a flack for Archer Daniels Midland, for that position. Could Bush have made a more explicit bow to the gods of agribusiness? 

    President Obama suddenly seems intent on blazing a new path for USDA. Sure, he picked a farm-state governor with ties to the ethanol and biotech industries as USDA chief. But that's almost reflexive in our political system. The key question became: who would he pick as the deputy -- the official who typically gets things done and sets the tone for the department? Would he pick a corn-fed flack, like Bush did? Another go-along to get-along type in the Vilsack mode? Or a real reformer? 

    Obama chose Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts. From what I can tell at first blush, she's a real reformer.