Last time a president had the occasion to name a deputy USDA secretary, I had a rhetorical cow, man. Back in 2005, President Bush chose Chuck Conner, a man who had previously worked as a flack for Archer Daniels Midland, for that position. Could Bush have made a more explicit bow to the gods of agribusiness?
President Obama suddenly seems intent on blazing a new path for USDA. Sure, he picked a farm-state governor with ties to the ethanol and biotech industries as USDA chief. But that's almost reflexive in our political system. The key question became: who would he pick as the deputy -- the official who typically gets things done and sets the tone for the department? Would he pick a corn-fed flack, like Bush did? Another go-along to get-along type in the Vilsack mode? Or a real reformer?
Obama chose Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts. From what I can tell at first blush, she's a real reformer.
In the sustainable-ag community, the reaction has been near euphoric. Merrigan has made the "sustainable dozen" list of deputy secretary candidates put forward by Iowa-based Food Democracy Now.
The activist chef Dan Barber, of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, described Merrigan like this in an email to me: "Kathleen's incredible... She's smart, dedicated, and ferocious. We couldn't have a better advocate I don't think. Very big news...." Several lesser-known sustainable-ag folks echoed that sentiment in emails.
From the announcement:
Merrigan is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment MS and PhD Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, Boston MA. Prior to joining the Friedman School, Merrigan held a variety of policymaking jobs at the state, federal, and international level. From 1999 to 2001, she was Administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 1994 to 1999, she worked at the Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, and served as an expert consultant at the Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. From 1987 to 1992 she was a staff member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, working for Chairman Patrick Leahy. From 1986 to 1987, Merrigan worked in the regulatory division of the Texas Department of Agriculture and from 1982 to 1985, she worked for Congressman John Olver during his tenure in the Massachusetts State Senate. Merrigan holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in environmental planning and policy, a Master of Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and a B.A. in Political Science and English from Williams College.