Monday, January 25, 2010
USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan brought welcome zing to the 2010 EcoFarm gathering at Asilomar Conference Center on a damp Friday afternoon, Jan. 22.
The high-level ag official talked about putting American families in touch with their farmers, and grazing livestock on farms that also sow veggies – a welcome message for organic farmers apalled by the post-spinach-scare segregation of farm flora and fauna. "In the panic about leafy greens, I've seen the devastation in terms of ecosystems, and that's not where we want to go," she said, noting that many of the anti-wildlife demands came from industry reps, not regulators.
She's also bravely forging into the land of New Media. The September '09 launch of the "Know your farmer, know your food" campaign wasn't a press conference, but rather a tour of a small leased organic farm in Virginia with (gasp!) bloggers. "They've actually convinced me," middle-aged Merrigan said of her Gen-X aides: "I'm gonna start Tweeting."
It's a necessary outreach for an American population increasingly disconnected from its food source, where the average U.S. farmer is 59 years old. "As a nation, we're in a bit of a crisis around this," Merrigan says, cheered by the dozens of red-cheeked young faces looking back at her from the EcoFarm audience.
Farm-to-school programs are key to rebuilding that bridge, she added, as long as it's not done in a way that stresses out already-overworked teachers. As Merrigan's new pal Michelle Obama noted, kids with garden classrooms tend to be more eco-literate, and willing to brave new veggie frontiers. One big-picture goal is to spark a reverse migration from the concrete to the fields, drawing city-raised young adults to careers on farms and ranches.
Merrigan's edicts reach into federal cafeterias, too. "One of the first things I did when I got to USDA was try to change the food culture there," she said, decribing a new healthy-choices line in the South Cafeteria. A demo day brought Prez Obama's favorite arugula salad, a swap of sugary desserts for fresh fruits, and 80 percent local ingredients. Blueprints will soon lead to two USDA greenhouses to supply the cafeterias, she added, to crowd admiration.
She described a tough-love approach to the National Organics Program, including an upgrade to its own division. "We need to be grown-up now about organic," she said. In her new regulatory structure, organics are no longer buttonholed, but rather integrated across divisions. NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy gave more insight into tighter organics compliance: unannounced farm inspections, residue sampling and quicker investigations of complaints about products that use the term "organic" too liberally.
"The Age of Enforcement – that's my line, by the way," Merrigan said. "They have a job to do."
During the Q&A session, Doug Gurian-Sherman of Union of Concerned Scientists asked about the international image of U.S. agriculture as biotech-driven, rather than organic. The panel onstage hesitated, prompting audience laughter. Obviously the EcoFarm crowd is "not big fans of biotech," Merrigan cracked, prompting applause.
But, in line with her biotech-friendly boss, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Merrigan said the USDA seeks a "peaceful co-existence" between organic and genetically modified crops.
A lonely boo rang out in Merrill Hall.
"I heard that," Merrigan said.
The organic farmers in the audience sure hoped so.