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USDA's Deputy Secretary Discusses Local, Organic Farming

It was by no means Kathleen Merrigan's first trip to the Ecological Farming Conference (EcoFarm). But when the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture stood at a podium to address last week's annual gathering of farmers, retailers, processors, and advocates, it was clear she had never had quite such a crucial role to play at the event. Now on its 30th year, EcoFarm regularly draws a large percentage of those who have been envisioning and shaping the sustainable food movement for years.

Since Merrigan's appointment to the USDA, she's been under a great deal of pressure to make big changes happen quickly. She began Friday's address with a direct plea for patience, much like we have heard from President Obama in recent months. "I come to this job with great ambition-and a great history with many of you in the audience-but also with an understanding that change takes time," she told the audience.

What follows is a run-down of the major issues Merrigan touched on in her address and in response to audience questions.

National Organic Program expansion

Last fall, Merrigan played a personal role in appointing Miles McAvoy to head the National Organic Program (NOP)-the program she once helmed. Before Merrigan's address, McAvoy ran through an in-depth PowerPoint presentation detailing his plans for creating what has been dubbed the "Age of Enforcement" in this regulatory program. After years of making do with a severely limited staff and budget, a shift will be made possible by a recent expansion of the NOP budget, from $3.8 million in 2009 to $6.9 million in 2010.

"We needed to pull in some new leadership and we need to keep working on that budget, because it's really important," Merrigan said, "not only for organic [producers] but for all American agriculture, because our organic farmers have, in many ways, been research pioneers." She also stressed that the whole USDA should be integrating organic into their work. "It's about time that everything that has to do with organic is not just sent to NOP." She described her plan to go to all 27 agencies within the department, and say "what are you doing for organic? Who's your organic point person and what's your organic agenda?"

Every family needs a farmer

Merrigan has high hopes for the recently launched Know Your Farmer Know Your Food program. She talked about traveling the country examining efforts to reestablish local and regional food systems, taking notes on what needs the department's support.

When asked by a member of the audience where she sees the program in five years, Merrigan responded: "I'm hoping that it is like what 'sustainable' is now. We won't have to sit around doing creative brainstorming about what it is we need to do to reconnect consumers with their food; it will be embedded in the agenda of every agency in the USDA."

To ensure that this happens, Merrigan appears to be focused on systematizing the local food infrastructure. The day she spoke, for instance, she and several USDA staff members had just come from visiting a mobile slaughter unit, and she described the lack of small scale meat processing options as "a big structural barrier to sustainability." The biggest challenge for small meat producers, she continued, is the fact that "Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) rules about mobile slaughter aren't written down anywhere   and that puts a lot of risk into the equation." Within the month, she added, the USDA will release a mobile slaughter compliance manual along with several instructional webinars. "That should let everyone know the rules of the road," said Merrigan.