GRANVILLE, Ohio — Former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan encouraged farmers to get involved with government and the policies that affect their industry during a keynote address Feb. 16 at the annual Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference.
Merrigan served as deputy secretary from April of 2009, to her resignation on March 14, 2013. She was known as an advocate for local foods and organic farming, having helped to write the National Organic Program, and later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program.
“It was a hard four years in a lot of ways,” she said. “But I believe I was able to make a lot of changes there. I took my turn — I need someone to step up and take (their) turn.”
During her speech, Merrigan gave 10 reasons why farmers should be engaged in federal policy, including protecting their interests, their way of life and their democracy.
One of the things she’s noticing is a “renaissance of interest in agriculture.”
As that renaissance takes place, new farmers are being made, including farmers who did not come from farm families. This requires education and resources, she said, as the industry works to grow its next generation.
And, there is renewed interest in government itself — for local foods and regional systems. Merrigan said even other state and federal branches, like the departments of transportation and commerce — are all showing renewed interest in how they can get involved.
“There’s this interest — this hunger across all the federal bureaucracy for local and regional efforts in food production,” she said. “And that’s screaming out ‘opportunity and opportunity.’”
Merrigan was introduced by Ohio State University’s Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He said he wants to be an open partner to OEFFA and provide the resources the organization and its members need.
“We’re all batting for the same team here and that is a sustainable, healthy and abundant food supply for the people of Ohio, the nation and the world,” McPheron said, to applause.
Nearly 1,200 people attended the conference, which was held inside Granville High School and Middle School.
Before Merrigan’s speech, Ed Perkins, OEFFA Service Award recipient, talked about the joy he gets from working with soil, and the need to attract new farmers. He and his wife, Amy Abercrombie, operate Sassafras Farm in Athens County.
They grow chemical-free vegetables, herbs, and berries on 2 acres, which are sold year-round at the Athens Farmers Market.
“This isn’t just a job — it’s a lifestyle because you’re out there as part of nature’s cycle,” he said.
He challenged young farmers to “pursue that interest because we need new farmers … I need a replacement — a lot of us do.”
Ten reasons to get involved
Here are the reasons Merrigan said farmers should get involved with government.
1. Advocacy makes a difference. Merrigan pointed to the 2014 farm bill as an example, saying the bill is not “game-changing” for local foods, but it does include provisions that are a direct result of producers’ input.
2. The rest of the country is counting on you. She told producers to consider their elected officials in state and federal office and how well they represent the farmer’s interests. These leaders are making a difference not only in Ohio, but across the nation.
3. Defense can be just as important as offense. She pointed to the Food Safety Modernization Act (2011) as an example, noting how the FSMA rules are bringing the biggest changes to food safety in 70 years, while also providing a good defense against foodborne illness. Although it has taken a long time to finalize the rules, Merrigan said they have the potential to be a “real game changer” for the better.
4. Renaissance of interest in agriculture. There is a renewed interest in farming and local systems, including among government officials and government agencies beyond just the USDA.
5. Money is there for the taking. She spoke about the USDA compass tool, which provides a transparent map of where USDA funds have been invested for different local foods projects, searchable by zip code or topic. There are many grant opportunities available that can help specialty crop growers and local producers. The compass is available on www.usda.gov, under “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.”
6. Decreased ability to coexist with farmers growing genetically engineered crops. “The ability to have a GMO-free product is becoming increasingly difficult,” she said. She made it clear she is not against using GMO seeds, but she said farmers who do not use GMO seeds face some real concerns. Those concerns include drifting and co-mingling and contamination of the two different kinds of seeds. “I’ve never been an anti-GMO person but I do believe that there is definitely a marketplace demand for a GMO-free product and if farmers want to produce for that market, then they should be allowed to and there should be procedures in place…,” she said.
7. Uncle Sam needs you. She said there are many good job opportunities within the federal government, especially with some recent retirements.
8. There’s a big event coming. Most recently, the big event was the new farm bill. But as hard as it was to pass that bill, Merrigan said the next farm bill attempt could be even harder, and may be unsuccessful. “I think we got this one through by the hair of the chinny-chin-chin,” she said. “But I’m not sure we’re going to see farm bills — those big omnibus bills going through anymore. The sand’s shifting and we have a lot of big things at play.” Other big changes include climate change and how to respond, as well as immigration reform. With immigration, farmers are unsure if they will have the labor force they need to be competitive and keep food production in the country.
9. Resources and strategies to re-populate farms. While the Feb. 20 Agriculture Census will tell the numbers, Merrigan is already concerned there is a need for more farmers.
10. We cannot take our democracy for granted. She said each producer has the power to make important decisions and should do his or her part to help make a difference.