click image to zoomCourtesy USDAAgriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan chats with students at a Decatur, Ga., school in October 2011 during National School Lunch Week.Kathleen Merrigan has been an influential advocate for organic agriculture and local food at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and industry leaders say her pending departure as deputy secretary creates questions about who will step into that leadership role.
Criticized by produce industry leaders early in her tenure for focusing too narrowly on small and organic growers with the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, Merrigan was nevertheless a strong advocate for fruits and vegetables, said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association.
Stenzel said she was aware the scope of commercial fresh produce industry, despite not spending much time in the Western growing areas.
“There were always things that you wish could have been accomplished, but I think by and large she was a good deputy for our industry,” Stenzel said.
One rocky patch with the industry, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh, was friction over the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.
“Consumers should understand where their food comes and the value of agriculture here in the U.S., but I think it got miscontrued and politcized a little too much,” he said.
To Merrigan’s credit, however, Guenther said those industry concerns eased as the program matured.
However, many of the local food, small farmer and organic programs embraced by Merrigan were also important to the White House, said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.
For example, the White House garden and the White House chef’s embrace of local food added heft to what Merrigan accomplished at USDA.
With no indication on who will succeed Merrigan, industry leaders predicted the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative will likely continue at USDA.
“My assumption is that there are large parts of what she has been leading that are going to continue to have a home in the department,” Nuxoll said.
The departure of Merrigan won’t slow the broader local food movement, said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Washington, D.C.
While the public may have an appreciation and awareness that the Obama administration has advanced the issue of local food over the past several years, he said a change in USDA leadership won’t deter the appeal of the trend.
“As a phenomenon, I think (local food) will continue for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Hoefner said Merrigan’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative was important to various USDA programs, including the farmers market promotion program, value-added producer grants and local food enterprise loan programs.
“The initiative gave it a nice way for people in various agencies to realize that they were doing something with a common purpose to it,” he said.