At first we heard that she was to be Under Secretary for Marketing & Regulatory Programs, and a cheer went up from the world of organic and sustainable food advocates. Then came the news that Kathleen Merrigan was to be Deputy Secretary of the whole freakin USDA, and the din of our jubilation filled cyberspace. One of our own, who has been called “the midwife of the organic law,” would be in charge of the day to day workings of this vast bureaucracy that affects every aspect of our food system.
Count me among the most pleased, for sure. If you follow this stuff, there’s no need to repeat her credentials—she is one of the few names on the list of the “sustainable dozen” who is truly qualified for a top government job. At first disappointed by the choice of Tom Vilsack as Secretary, my opinion was swayed by another friend on that list, Denise O’Brien of Iowa, who convinced me (and others) that he would put a strong emphasis on our concerns. But with Kathleen as second in command at USDA, there will be no doubt.
I first met Kathleen in late 1989, when she attended the organizing meeting of the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC) in Leavenworth, Kansas. As staffer for Senator Leahy, who then chaired the Senate Ag Committee, she had taken on the drafting of an organic labeling law, and had circulated some early drafts to organic farming, consumer and environmental leaders. I was impressed by her ability to listen, as well as her no nonsense explanation of the political realities involved in hashing out legislation that would satisfy everyone who wanted it and still be workable. She proved to be a great tutor in the art of lobbying, and helped the grassroots organic movement score a huge victory in getting the OFPA passed over the objections of USDA.
When I joined the National Organic Program (NOP) staff in 1994, Kathleen was actively involved in discussions with the staff and NOSB (National Organic Standards Board), becoming an NOSB member a little later. I have not always agreed with her, and was very unhappy about her involvement with opposition to the first proposed rule. Although the “bible thumpers” thought it perfectly clear, the OFPA was far from perfect, and its implementation was problematic from the start. How much she had to do with the hiring decision in early 1998 that installed her former Texas colleague as NOP Program Manager, I really don’t know—it was a moment of irrevocable harm to the work we tried to do that remains a sore spot with me.
Despite our disagreements, I learned to respect Kathleen as a tough political fighter, and as an effective manager who was able to take over at AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service, the USDA agency where the NOP is housed) and finally push the revised regulations through the tangle of legal reviews to the light of day just before the end of the Clinton administration. My reservations about her are minor compared to the obvious strength of her commitment to the agenda of alternative agriculture. Kathleen lives and breathes politics, and sometimes doesn’t “get” the realities of farming. She also made some enemies of career people at USDA, who are the ones who do all the work and whose cooperation is critical to realizing the policies of a “political.” Whatever obstacles she encounters in reshaping USDA to advance sustainable policies and implement some of the forward-looking sections of the new Farm Bill, she has my complete support. Way to go, Kathleen!