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Intelligent Machines

Kathleen Merrigan, PhD ‘00

Working for sustainable agriculture at the USDA

A typical day’s schedule for Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan reveals a lot about her and her agency.

“I put in 12-hour days, which consist of making decisions in rapid fire,” she says cheerfully. “I might have a meeting about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example. And then I’m off to give three or four speeches on any number of topics. And then I have business at the White House–I’m there three or four times a week.”

Merrigan says people are usually surprised to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is involved in something like the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the agency’s tasks was persuading farmers to flood their land to give migratory birds alternative landing sites.

This story is part of the November/December 2010 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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In general, she says, there’s been a shift in tone at the USDA. Some 30 years ago, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz infamously intensified large-scale U.S. agribusiness with his mantra “Get big or get out.” Merrigan says the current mantra would be more along the lines of “Ag is back.”

“There’s a new interest in where food comes from and how it’s produced,” she says. Her “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative highlights the connection between farmers and consumers while supporting local and regional food systems. “I’m trying to ride that tidal wave of interest to help rural communities and urban communities–all across America–to reconnect with farmers,” she says.

Building connections between people, food, and farmers has long been central to Merrigan’s work. In 1990, she worked as a staffer on the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, where she played a role in standardizing organic food labeling by helping draft the Organic Foods Production Act and lobbying for its passage. In 2000 she earned a PhD from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and then joined the faculty at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Merrigan was nominated to her current position by President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2009. “Sustainable local and regional food systems is one of the things that the president talked about on the campaign trail. So when I took this job,” she says with some pride, “I had a mandate from our top leader.”

Merrigan lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her husband, Michael. They have two elementary-school-aged children.

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