Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published May 06, 2013, 10:48 AM

Merrigan says goodbye

If there are any differences between Merrigan and Vilsack they were not visible at Merrigan’s departure ceremony and party in the patio of the Jamie Whitten headquarters building.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who has been best known for her “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative to help local and organic producers find markets, turned her April 24 departure from the U.S. Department of Agriculture into the announcement of a new initiative, “Know Your Farmers, Know Your Flowers” and reassured her supporters that the initiative will continue.

Pointing to bouquets of flowers from Virginia, Washington, California and Maryland in front of her and on tables scattered throughout the room, Merrigan urged people to buy from U.S. growers.

“They will stay fresh longer,” she said.

Kasey Cronquist, CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission who arranged for the flowers at Merrigan’s party, told Agweek in an email, “I really wish I could have made the event myself, but I believe the deputy was the best spokesperson for America’s flower farmers on Wednesday (April 24).”

The presence of Merrigan, who helped then-Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., write the Organic Standards Act in the late 1980s, has been a dream come true for advocates of small-scale agriculture.

Leaders of those movements have expressed concern that her departure would mean the end or at least a reduction in the scale of the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that it will be institutionalized throughout the department.

If there are any differences between Merrigan and Vilsack they were not visible at Merrigan’s departure ceremony and party in the patio of the Jamie Whitten headquarters building.

The exact reasons for Merrigan’s decision to resign have never been made clear, but Vilsack led a parade of USDA political appointees in praising Merrigan for her four years as deputy.

Merrigan is scheduled to attend a conference on women in agriculture in Wisconsin and leave the department in early May.

The White House has named Michael Scuse as agriculture acting deputy secretary effective May 4, replacing Merrigan.

Scuse has been serving as undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services and as a member of the board of directors of the Commodity Credit Corp. since being confirmed to that post a year ago. Before joining the Obama administration, he was Delaware agriculture secretary and served as president of the Northeast Association of state departments of agriculture.

Vilsack thanked Merrigan for managing the civil service staff, as well as mentoring the younger political appointees who he said he expects to see serving in higher-level positions in future Democratic administrations.

Vilsack also noted that she has cared for her husband, children and ailing father while serving as deputy.

But Vilsack also acknowledged that Merrigan has pointedly said she did not resign to spend more time with her family, and believes that women in what she calls “jobs of privilege” who say their lives are tough do not realize how hard it is for women in lesser positions to manage work and home life.

“She believes she can have it all. She believes it and she’s proven it,” Vilsack said.

Other officials praised Merrigan for proving that an academic — she was previously a professor at Tufts University — can manage a government agency, and for proving that “nice guys” don’t always finish last. The event was also attended by many farm leaders and congressional staff.

More than 100 food and farm leaders, CEOs, actors, chefs, pediatricians, authors, environmentalists and public interest groups organized by the Environmental Working Group recently sent Merrigan a letter of thanks.

Merrigan directly addressed concerns that “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” will diminish with her departure.

“Nothing could have been approved without the secretary,” Merrigan said.

She also noted that when she wrote her doctoral dissertation on sustainable agriculture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she asked her expert interview subjects if Martians landed on earth and asked to be taken to the leader of the sustainable agriculture movement who that would be. All her respondents refused to answer, or named several people.

Merrigan said that when people talk about the growth of sustainable agriculture, she often thinks of former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement that “it takes a village” to raise a child.

“Am I a leader? Yes. But there are many leaders. We have a great secretary. The work will go on.”