Last Tuesday, Kathleen Merrigan announced that she was resigning from her post as deputy secretary for the USDA. As the agency’s second in command to agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, Merrigan was a stalwart supporter of organic and local food production. In fact, she played a key role in forming the National Organic Program, as she helped draft Congress's Organic Food Production Act of 1990.
"It has been an ambitious first term," Merrigan said in a statement. "From implementing the 2008 farm bill, improving school meals, expanding opportunities for American farmers, spending countless hours in the White House situation room, to shepherding USDA budgets through challenging times, it has been an honor to play a small part in history." Merrigan offered no reason for leaving and hinted at no future plans. She will stay on through the end of April.
"She has played a vital role in the Department-wide focus on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, as well as our efforts to achieve budget efficiencies and savings during an uncertain budget time," stated Vilsack.
The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program sought to strengthen local and regional food systems by providing grants to smaller fruit, vegetable and nut farms, fostering community farmers markets and connecting farmers to "food hubs"—areas that facilitate the distribution of locally grown foods.
"I hope that during my tenure, I was able to help open USDA's doors a little wider, inviting new and discouraged constituencies to participate in USDA programs," Merrigan said.
Organic thought leaders and advocates agree that these are some big shoes to fill. Some feel as though we've lost an ally in sustainable farming.
Mother Jones food writer Tom Philpott praised Merrigan's unwavering understanding of organic and small farm food production, writing that she "made a concerted effort to marshal USDA resources to support local and regional food systems supplied by farms of varying scales: the opposite of the globalized, monolithic system envisioned by Benson and put into place with the consent of his successors."
"In an agency that too often defaults to the preferences of industrial agriculture and big food companies, Kathleen has been the vital source of fresh ideas, action and hope in the daunting work of fixing America's broken food system," Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), said in a statement. "With Kathleen stepping down, I find myself much more concerned about the administration's next moves in food and agriculture policy than I am about Kathleen's."
Being a part of the natural industry, it's worrying that we won't have Merrigan looking out for us from a platform as influential as the USDA. Indeed, she was like a wise older sister to us. I think Time magazine put it best when they named Kathleen Merrigan one of the most influential people in 2010: "If you've ever wondered who in government shoulders the complexities of moving an agenda forward in a fractured time and pushes on without getting soaked, here is your answer."
Her presence will most surely be missed.