“Know Your Farmer” champion at USDA steps down

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen A. Merrigan. Photo credit: USDA

When I first encountered Igl Farms and their potatoes, which I posted about earlier this week, I didn’t realize that the motto on their packaging (“know your food, know your farmer”) was a variation on the name of a USDA program. I learned about that program from Tom Philpott in a post at Mother Jones about the resignation of Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture. Philpott writes,

For generations, the message from the US Department of Agriculture to the nation’s farmers could be summed up in the famous piece of advice offered by Ezra Taft Benson, President Dwight Eisenhower’s USDA chief: “get big or get out.” That’s why Merrigan’s tenure is so significant. Under her influence, the USDA suddenly began to urge consumers to “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” and made a concerted effort to marshal USDA resources to support local and regional food systems supplied by farms of varying scales: the opposite of the globalized, monolithic system envisioned by Benson and put into place with the consent of his successors.

Even so, US farm policy, hammered out in Congress through once-every-five-year farm bills and executed by the USDA, remains largely guided by Taft’s agribusiness-friendly vision. Know Your Farmer does not represent new funding—the USDA has no power to roll out new programs—but rather the bundling together of existing programs that can be used to fund alternative food projects. And these programs are funded at pennies on the dollar compared to, say, commodity subsidies. And, true, the Obama administration has certainly had its share of cave-ins to Big Ag—none greater than its deregulation of various dodgy genetically modified crops. But as I put it in a post in 2011, Know Your Farmer represents the USDA’s “most high-profile acknowledgement since the post-war rise of industrial agriculture that alternative food systems exist, matter, and deserve support.”

As usual, Philpott’s piece is thoughtful and full of great links; check out the full post here.

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