Deputy Secretary “knows your food”

Jan. 22, 2010, 3:03 a.m.

Just as Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), used transmitter devices to keep her audience involved in her talk last night, she hopes to use health and human welfare issues to involve the whole country in “knowing their farmer.”

“We believe there’s just too much distance between American consumers today and those who produce their food,” Merrigan said.

Speaking in Annenberg Auditorium last night, Merrigan laid out the main goals of the USDA’s new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, which aims to create agricultural opportunities, support nutritional eating and foster connection between consumers and food providers.

A colorful slideshow, combined with multiple choice questions the audience could answer with transmitter devices Kathleen’s associates handed out before the talk, kept the audience engaged throughout the hour.

“People want to have that connection, they want food to have a story,” she said. “There is a thirst in this country to have a conversation about agriculture that I have never seen.”

Political science Prof. Rob Reich established high expectations for Merrigan in his introduction.

“I think we have with us tonight a rock star of the outside world, gone inside,” he said, describing the Deputy Secretary as a woman with new ideas who arrived in her current office by a non-traditional path.

Merrigan’s talk focused on how the USDA was using Facebook chat sessions, Webinars, Twitter and blogs to encourage popular participation in the initiative’s Web site. She also stressed the interdisciplinary focus of the program.

“It’s somewhat mold-breaking for the bureaucracy to try to do things across disciplines, across departments,” Merrigan said. “There’s a lot of interconnectedness in the work that needs to be done.”

One primary problem “Know Your Farmer” hopes to correct is the gap between farmers’ income and the cost of running a farm. Merrigan showed that while the net cash income of the average farmer is $70,000 per year, the estimated market value for the machinery on the farm is $136,000, while the estimated value of the land and buildings is $1.1 million. Because of this, Merrigan described a wide variety of USDA grants designed to boost the opportunities of smaller, independent farmers.

As for at the Farm, Merrigan said students can get involved at all levels of the program and shared opportunities for those looking to become farmers, a future career many Stanford students may have not considered.

Although many of her ideas met enthusiasm at the end of her talk, most of the audience’s questions directed criticism at aspects of USDA policy. Merrigan was quick to acknowledge the organization’s shortcomings and the changes that need to be made.

Todd Laurence, vice president of YottaMark, a business that traces food from the farms to the markets, enjoyed the talk, but also believes that tracing food, rather than bringing farms close to consumers, might be a more effective answer.

“The reality is that that option [of eating local] isn’t available for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet,” he said.

Matt Harnack, MFA ’08, also emerged from Annenberg with a greater understanding of the complexities of food in America—especially when compared with previous talks in the Food/Environment series.

“The USDA is vilified by [previous speakers] Joel Sullivan and Michael Pollan a little bit…This talk] makes things a lot more complicated,” he said. “It’s easy to scapegoat the USDA, but what I got out of this is that it’s why more complicated than I thought it was.”

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