The Deputy Secretary also wades into the debate about women, family, and work...
By Jerry Hagstrom
If there are any differences between Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan they were not visible Wednesday at Merrigan's departure ceremony and party in the patio of the Jamie Whitten headquarters building in Washington, DC. (Above: USDA's party invitation featured images of Merrigan)
The event was attended by many farm leaders and congressional staff for
whom the appointment of a Deputy Secretary who helped then-Senate
Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) write the Organic
Standards Act was a dream come true.
The exact reasons for Merrigan’s decision to resign from the Obama Administration, announced in March, have never been made clear, but Vilsack led a parade of USDA political appointees in praising Merrigan for her four years as Deputy. She is scheduled to attend a conference on women in agriculture in Wisconsin and leave the department in early May.
Vilsack thanked Merrigan for managing the civil service staff as well as mentoring the younger political appointees who he said he expects to see serving in higher level positions in future Democratic administrations. Vilsack noted that she has cared for her husband, children and ailing father while serving as Deputy, and also acknowledged that Merrigan has pointedly said she did not resign to spend more time with her family, and believes that women in what she calls "jobs of privilege" who say that their lives are tough do not realize how hard it is for women in lesser positions to manage work and home life. *See note below
"She believes she can have it all. She believes it and she’s proven it," Vilsack said.
Other officials praised Merrigan for proving that an academic--she was previously a professor at Tufts University--can manage a government agency, and for proving that "nice guys" don't always finish last.
Merrigan has been best known for her "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative to help local and organic producers find markets, and when she took the podium she managed to turn her departure into the announcement of a new initiative, "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Flowers." Pointing to bouquets of flowers from Virginia, Washington, California and Maryland in front of her and on tables scattered throughout the room, Merrigan urged people to buy from U.S. growers. (Above, Merrigan addressing the party, with some of the flowers)
“They will stay fresh longer,” Merrigan said.
Ed. Note: The initiative came after long work from the California Cut Flower Commission, which has also been lobbying the White House to use American-grown flowers, too. The White House sources from abroad for many of its blooms.
Merrigan directly addressed concerns that "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" will diminish with her departure, even though Vilsack has said it is being "institutionalized" throughout the department.
"Nothing could have been approved without the Secretary," Merrigan said.
She also noted that when she wrote her doctoral dissertation on sustainable agriculture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she asked her expert interview subjects if Martians landed on earth and asked to be taken to the leader of the sustainable agriculture movement who that would be. All her respondents refused to answer, or named several people.
Merrigan said that when people talk about the growth of sustainable agriculture, she often thinks of former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement that "it takes a village" to raise a child.
"Am I a leader? Yes. But there are many leaders," Merrigan said. "We have a great Secretary. The work will go on.”
More than 100 food and farm leaders, CEOs, actors,
chefs, pediatricians, authors, environmentalists and public interest
groups recently sent Merrigan a letter of thanks for her work.
Above: The California Cut Flower Commission produced this gift card, which was attached to the floral arrangements at Merrigan's departure ceremony.
*Ed. note: In an interview with Hagstrom published in the National Journal before the party, Merrigan said she made
one final point to political appointees in a speech announcing her
departure: She is not leaving for family reasons. She said she disagrees
completely with Anne Marie Slaughter, the former State Department
official who published an essay in The Atlantic questioning whether women in big jobs can "have it all." Unlike a woman who works at McDonald’s and has the same
responsibilities, Merrigan said, she has had staff who have asked when
her father had a problem what they do could do to rearrange her
*Photo by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report
Jerry Hagstrom, founder and editor of the best online, subscription-only agriculture and policy newspaper The Hagstrom Report, cross-posts at Obama Foodorama. If you're not a subscriber to The Hagstrom Report, you're missing crucial coverage.