Keynote Kathleen Merrigan

Winter 2012-2013
Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture for USDA, noted the advances the department has made in supporting organic agriculture under the current administration. English photo.

Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of USDA, asked MOFGA’s executive director, Russell Libby, if she could come to the 2012 Common Ground Country Fair.

“This is something that would not have happened,” said Libby, “at the first Common Ground Fair.” Or the fifth. Or the 10th, 20th or 25th, he added.

Now “some of us are actually getting respectable for some reason” – which is good, he added, “because we all need to work together to make organic agriculture grow.”

Libby first met Merrigan when she was working to implement the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) years ago. Now her job involves making sure the program works and that USDA has bought into it.

“And she’s very successful at that,” said Libby. “We couldn’t have a better advocate for organic at USDA.”

A Tribute to Russell

“I’ve been hearing about this event for a number of years,” said Merrigan. “This is the first time I’ve actually set foot at the Fair – and wow! I just wish I came two days ago and I could be here for the whole of it. How exciting, how wonderful!”

Merrigan spoke at the Fair about USDA’s organic work; its Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative; “but first and foremost, to offer tribute to my friend Russell Libby … We have been in the trenches together for many, many years. What an organization you’ve built, and how many farmers you’ve supported and served. It’s really great to see organic and local and regional agriculture thriving here in Maine. It’s a tribute to your leadership.”

Libby sometimes challenges Merrigan’s thinking, “and that’s a good thing,” she said. “We are still evolving in terms of where we’re going in American agriculture. The average age of farmers now is closing in on 60; a third of our farmers are over the age of 65. So the challenges are immense. It’s really good to get your sleeves rolled up, skip the niceties and really talk about what the challenges are we face today.”

Old friends Russell Libby and Kathleen Merrigan. English photo.

USDA’s Organic Harvest

Merrigan celebrated in her speech “the harvest of what we produced at USDA on organic in the course of the Obama administration.” When she helped write the national law that set standards for organic food, it was “a very prescriptive law,” she said, “because we didn’t trust USDA at the time. They weren’t friends of organic, frankly. So we wanted to put as much in the law itself as possible, and we established a National Organic Standards Board that wasn’t just an advisory board but had real statutory powers that sets it apart from all advisory boards that USDA has – because we wanted to have a citizen board that controlled materials in organic. There was a lot of anxiety when this law passed. How would USDA implement it?”

The anxiety was well founded. In 1990, Merrigan explained, when she was working for Senator Leahy on the Senate Agriculture Committee, she has since been told that when she called USDA for information about how the program was being implemented, “people on staff were told not to take my phone calls. In the worst-case scenario, if I actually got them on the phone, USDA staff were instructed to tell me the wrong information.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Merrigan. “USDA is now embracing organic agriculture in a big old way.”

At the beginning of the Obama administration, “we put together a strategic plan,” making leadership managers at USDA accountable for how they implemented that plan. “Their annual evaluations are tracked with how well we’re doing based on those priority goals. And in USDA’s strategic plan for this administration, we set a goal of increasing the number of U.S. certified organic operations by 25 percent from 2009 to 2015. So managers at USDA know that, get it, and they’re held accountable for what they’re doing to help organic.”

That requires education, as “a lot of people … don’t really understand what organic really is today. And some of those people work at USDA. Some of those people may be here. Generally we need to get the word out.”

Spreading the Organic Word

To do that, USDA launched the Organic Literacy Initiative last summer. The National Organic Program website has a resource guide for USDA employees in field offices, and for the general public, listing USDA programs and how they can support organic farmers, ranchers and processors. Field staff can print brochures to put in their offices, and posters that ask, “Is organic an option for me?”

Internally, USDA has an Internet school called AgLearn with courses that USDA employees must take. “We have Organic 101 and Organic 102,” said Merrigan, “that we’re expecting over the next couple of years all USDA employees to take and learn, so that they can fully understand organic, and provide people who are coming to our doors, asking for help, with the right, targeted information that people need.”

When Merrigan became deputy secretary, “we wanted an infusion of new expertise,” she said, “so we hired Miles McEvoy to run the National Organic Program.” McEvoy ran the organic program for Washington State for 20 years. “He knew the community, he knew the issues, and he was comfortable wearing a suit; that’s part of Washington. He’s doing a great job; he’s put out a new newsletter that hopefully you all subscribe to. He’s brought the next level of professionalism and integrity to the program.”

Enforcing the Organic Label

Merrigan continued, “We also declared that this was the age of enforcement. [It’s] very important for consumers to understand that the organic label is meaningful and that we really back it up.

“After years of complaints that came in to USDA just lingering, we expedited a review of complaints. In fiscal year ’11, we closed out 87 percent of the complaints. That was record-breaking. This year we received and responded to a record number of complaints, and we’ve levied over $100,000 in civil penalties. We collaborated with the Department of Justice to pursue several criminal prosecutions. So people who were trying to take advantage of organic, they’re out in the cold now. This is the age of enforcement.”

Fruits of Organic Research

With help from Congressional funding priorities, “and Chellie Pingree has certainly been one of the leaders for these sorts of things,” said Merrigan, USDA has invested more than $100 million in organic research. “The results are coming now … I think we’re going to see some transformation of some of the things we’re doing on the farm based on some of the research coming out.

“We conducted a comprehensive. rigorous national survey of organic producers [with] almost 80 percent participation in that survey … This kind of data really helps motivate the bureaucracy in the federal government to provide the organic sector its fair share.”

Merrigan urged growers to respond to the 2012 agricultural census. “We’re doing a better job trying to ask questions about intermediated sales and local and regional food markets, and I think that data could really help the agenda in Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.”

Farmer Support

When Merrigan became deputy secretary, “I found out we were turning money back to the Treasury every year, money that was put aside by Congress to provide cost-share assistance to farmers who wanted to be certified. Part of it was we weren’t doing a very good job of outreach to farmers to let them know this money was available. So in this last year we had a 48 percent increase in the number of users of that organic cost share, and a 79 percent increase in the amount of money used.”

Within the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), USDA dedicated $60 million for organic and transitioning-to-organic practices. “That’s made a really big difference. I’ve even heard from a number of producers … around the Fair how well they’ve used that.”

Crop insurance “is a mountain to climb,” said Merrigan. “We’ve begun eliminating the organic surcharge on some premiums and establishing an organic price payout on some crops. Crop insurance is a big issue for the Farm Bill that’s pending. Someday we’ll get a Farm Bill, and hopefully we’ll get some tools that are going to be more calibrated, particularly for specialty crop growers. I don’t think our system now has any clue what to do with a farmer that has 20 different vegetable crops on their land.”

Regarding trade, USDA established an equivalency agreement with the European Union, effective June 2012, so that farmers don’t need double certification and don’t pay double fees.

“If it’s organic here, it’s organic in Spain; if it’s organic in Denmark, it’s organic here. That really opens up trade doors,” said Merrigan. She signed a similar agreement with Canada in 2009.

The USDA, with the International Trade Commission, has established trade codes for more than 20 major organic commodities. “So now you can go to the Foreign Agricultural Service and get a monthly report on what’s going in and out of the country on those 20 commodities,” said Merrigan, “and we hope to expand that.”

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative

“Not every family needs a lawyer,” said Merrigan, “not every family needs an accountant, but every family needs a farmer. Do you know yours?”

The USDA is trying to engage in a national conversation about agriculture and its future, and is “particularly trying to build local and regional food systems. There’s a lot of overlap with organic. Organic people are generally the leaders in the local-regional food systems, so the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative is really front and center for a lot of the interests that you have. It’s where organic comes together with beginning farmers, farm-to-school efforts, healthy food access, regional scale infrastructure, direct marketing and the like.”

For example, Merrigan said she heard a lot of talk at the Fair about seasonal high tunnels; part of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative involves cost-share through the EQIP program for seasonal high tunnels (hoophouses) on the farm to extend the growing and farmers’ market seasons.

“We’ve now funded about 7,800 hoophouses across the country since we’ve offered this practice in 2010,” said Merrigan, “about 200 in Maine. That practice, started as a pilot, is now a permanent practice.”

Just before the Fair, USDA announced its new round of farmers’ market promotion program grants. “MOFGA has gotten grant money from that in the past to work with Maine General to give patients information on the wonderful things that local food can do for them,” said Merrigan. “Also this organization has gotten NIFA money – our National Institute for Food and Agriculture – to help with the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.”

Recalling Kevin Costner hearing a voice in the Field of Dreams movie saying, “If you build it, they will come,” Merrigan said, “in the same way, we have built a phenomenal tool called the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass – and now I need people to come. Go to

“One part is a narrative … case studies and names – a guy in Seattle, Washington, who wanted to turn his garage into a food safety-certified sausage factory, and he succeeded and is supporting producers there. A young man in Ohio had a pumpkin patch business and decided to get some value-added producer grant money to develop a pumpkin puree canned product, and now he’s got a booming business. All kinds of wonderful case studies, … [with] analyses showing that local-regional food means jobs, good jobs; it’s meaningful to the economy. You can see studies like [one] at the University of Georgia, which said that in Georgia, if everyone spent $10 a week buying local food, it would be $2 billion to that state economy. That wakes people up! People are starting to get this.”

The second part of the Compass is a geospatial mapping tool showing how USDA has supported organic and local in the last three years – in building capacity for local meat processing, for example, and promoting farm-to-institution projects.

“You can put in your zip code and see everything in a 50-mile or 400-mile radius or anywhere in between,” said Merrigan, “and the map delivers. You can use this map to do GAP analysis, to figure out where the synergies are, to get really great ideas. I know Maine’s got it goin’ on, I can see it here today; but maybe there are some great ideas from North Carolina … or, I was in Cleveland on Friday; they’re doing really cool stuff in local agriculture.”

Merrigan noted that USDA is a $150 billion institution with 120,000 employees. “How do you know everything that’s going on?” The Compass is a navigational tool to all the programs that can help with local-regional.

“What if we expand that problem statement to all of the federal government?” asked Merrigan … to the Department of Transportation’s Tiger grants to help local-regional; the Centers for Disease Control’s grant money to help with local food access; how the Department of Interior is seeking local food for its food concessions at the national parks; how the Department of Labor’s Job Corps training centers help students learn about gardening and farmers’ markets.

Regarding the Farm Bill, “I just wanted to shout out to my friend Chellie Pingree,” said Merrigan, “for her leadership and for introducing a whole lot of legislative language around local and regional foods, from trying to make our dollars more accessible to putting money into traditional crop breeding and research that will really help organic and local … We’re all looking forward to continuing the evolution and seeing these communities grow and thrive based on agriculture.”

Organic Gets Its Fair Share

Asked about balancing her work for organic and conventional growers, Merrigan said she never wants to pit farmer against farmer.

“We need more farmers. We need to repopulate our working lands. One of the stories I’m told often is that for five decades now, American agriculture has contributed to a positive balance of trade for this country. We have an amazing export record that’s huge for our economy, huge for jobs. One in 12 jobs in America is tied to the agricultural sector, so we are doing all kinds of things across the board for farmers and ranchers.

“To the extent that there’s a lot going on in organic, it’s because … organic wasn’t really getting its fair share of the resources at USDA. One of the things I always like to point out is that a lot of organic farmers have been research pioneers. Think about a lot of the conventional guys now who do rotational intensive grazing; that was really pioneered by the organic guys. So the investments we make in organic … are not exclusive benefits to organic. I see no competition. The Secretary and I are really comfortable with where we are in organic.”

Of USDA’s dozen or so results documents for the Obama administration, organic agriculture is one and local and regional is another. “Out of 12 results document for USDA, I think that’s meaningful,” said Merrigan.

Stanford Study

Regarding a recent Stanford University study about organic agriculture, Merrigan said parts of it concerning pesticide residues did not use all the pesticide data that USDA or the California Department of Food and Agriculture has, but the data they do use still shows, “as you would expect, fewer pesticide residues.”

When Merrigan was a professor at Tufts University, she did research with the USDA Antioxidant Laboratory, trying to determine whether organic cranberries, tomatoes and blueberries had more antioxidant capacity than non-organic.

“Let me tell you how difficult it is to have a true comparative analysis,” she said. “A lot of the studies in the Stanford analysis are not very strong. There are people who’ve been in organic for a year; in some cases they haven’t always been certified. On the Organic Center’s website (, I’ve written a paper about the difficulties of doing these comparative analyses. I think we’re years away from really knowing the answer. The research on the nutritional nature is nascent at best, and we need more longer-term trials to do these analyses … It’s stimulated a debate; I hope it stimulates more research, because there are some profound questions that we need to ask, and I think we’ll find intriguing answers … But [the Stanford study] is not the final word. That’s my bottom line.”

Integrated Forestry

Asked about forestry programs, Merrigan said “I came in with a burr under my saddle on agroforestry.” When she read students’ papers at Tufts, “I realized agroforestry was a much more deliberative policy effort by other governments. When you go to downtown Washington to see where USDA is, we’ve got the Whitten Building, which is right on the Mall, connected by bridges to the South Building. But over in the corner you’ve got the Forest Service building. It’s like a separate peninsula.

“I think we have never fully integrated in the ways that we could for our farmers and ranchers. So we’ve been very aggressive on agroforestry, in trying to bring new techniques to the farms. When you go to that Compass document, the narrative has a section on agroforestry and a lot of hyperlinks to the new work we have ongoing.”

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