Remarks by Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan at the National Farmers Union 111th Anniversary Convention, Springfield, Massachusetts | USDA Newsroom
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Release No. 0050.13
USDA Office of Communications (202)720-4623

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Remarks by Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan at the National Farmers Union 111th Anniversary Convention, Springfield, Massachusetts

March 3, 2013



Welcome to Massachusetts, my home state. I grew up in Greenfield, about 40 miles north of here.

Springfield was then, and still is, the big city. My family would come to Springfield twice a year to shop at Sears for our school clothes. Me and my brothers loved that because we got to ride an escalator.

I'm still a rural girl at heart. America is still a rural nation at heart.

Rural America is the source of our food. Over half of the U.S. land base is under agricultural production.

  • 88 percent of the water that we consume is impacted and affected by what occurs in rural America.
  • It is the source of an ever-increasing amount of our fuel and energy.
  • It provides a disproportionate share of our military personnel: 16 percent of America's population provides 40 percent of the military.

And it is a place where our values are rooted. For many of us, even those who grew up in urban areas, when we travel to rural America we are coming home.

President Obama is a believer in rural America. He established the White House Rural Council as a way to address challenges and fuel opportunities unique to our rural communities.

Chaired by Secretary Vilsack, the Rural Council includes representatives from all federal departments and 14 federal offices and agencies.

  • Since the creation of the Rural Council, the Obama Administration has made historic investments in rural America designed to drive job growth...
  • ...from establishing a rural carve-out in Small Business Administration investment programs... to an agreement between USDA and HHS to improve access to capital for rural hospitals.

The Council has given rural America a seat at the table in White House policy discussions and at tables across the federal government.


Yes, I am an aggie

Being Deputy Secretary, people always ask if I grew up on the farm. I did not. But I was connected.

The Secretary describes how we should all care about what goes on in the Ag sector, since 1 in 12 jobs is directly connected. That was true for my family, since my school teacher dad worked summers at the Agway down the end of my street - the New England farmers cooperative where farmers shop for equipment and supplies.

It's fair to say that when rural America is doing well, the rest of the country gets a lift too.

That's why in the next four years, USDA is emphasizing four key pillars - four levers for rural economic development - that we believe will have positive impacts for all Americans:

  • Exports, fueled by increased productivity and research. We'll build on recent developments like our equivalency agreements with Canada and the EU in organic trade. Since 2009, we've seen ag exports climb more than 50 percent in value.
  • Local and regional food systems that create more self-sufficiency in communities, draw more young people into agriculture, and keep revenues in the local economy.
  • Conservation. Our natural resources are still the foundation of our prosperity, and the health of rural lands and waters is the foundation of our health.
  • And the bio-based economy. The manufacturing jobs of the future are in rural America, using products from homegrown sources.

I believe these four issues will be critical for NFU's growth, too.

These four pillars - when I look at them, what I see is a very diverse industry. This is an important thing to take into account when you look at your future as an organization. Successful recruitment will mean making a big tent.

For all of us who work in agriculture, a successful future will mean creating opportunities for those who want to farm and ranch - in all the many ways that can be done - as well as for those who want to work in the lab, or design apps, or create new logistics models for distribution, or work in our forests.

Embracing this diversity is what will help USDA stay on the cutting edge. And I believe the same is true as NFU looks ahead to future growth.


Farmers were our neighbors

By 3rd grade, my parents had saved enough money for a down payment on their first and only house. It was next door to Mr. Roberts' farm, a small diversified vegetable operation. Ah man, it was beautiful. Mr. Roberts allowed us to pick what we wanted from the field. I saw how hard he worked - sometimes my dad would help. But by the time I graduated from high school, Mr. Roberts had passed away and the farm had been sold for commercial development. If you saw it today, you would have a hard time imagining a farm there as it is now covered up by a beauty supply store, houses, and lots of pavement over the once-rich soil.

Farmers are good neighbors. But looking toward the future, we're confronted with two troubling questions. Who will our farmers be? And where will they farm? These are also crucial issues for the future of the NFU.

  • For every farmer under the age of 35, we have six over the age of 65. The average age of a farmer today close to 60.
  • When farmers retire, the land may get bought up by a neighboring farm. Too often, it's developed.
  • According to USDA's Natural Resources Inventory, between 2002 and 2007, over 4 million acres of agricultural land was converted to developed land in the U.S. - an area nearly the size of Massachusetts.
  • And we're seeing outmigration from rural America. In the last census, over 50 percent of the rural counties in America lost population. 16 percent of America's population is in rural America today, the lowest in our history.

Now, I've seen a shift recently - a new energy among young people to get into agriculture. That said, wanting to start a farm and being able to get into the business are two completely different things.

The biggest barriers for beginning farmers are access to suitable land and access to capital to acquire land and equipment.

Adjusted for inflation, farm real estate values rose by 68 percent between 2000 and 2010.

We are working to address this barrier. Between 2009-2011, we increased the number of loans to beginning farmers and ranchers by almost 50 percent. More than 40 percent of USDA's farm loans now go to beginning farmers.

We launched a new microloan program to better meet the credit needs of small farm operations, including beginning farmers. Producers apply for loans of less than $35,000 using simplified and streamlined procedures.

And the work we're doing to bring businesses and opportunities to rural America tells young people that whatever their skills and talents, there is a place for them in our rural communities.

But we still have a long way to go.

And with the sequester and the lack of a five-year Farm Bill, the uncertainty that makes farming a risky proposition for young people is only greater.

By failing to pass a 5-year Farm Bill, Congress is tapping the brakes on momentum that has been building in the rural economy over the last four years... with expansion of regional food systems, new export opportunities, the bio-based economy and other accomplishments.

We need a five-year bill and we need it now.

And this new five-year bill must continue our commitment to provide access to credit. We need to adjust and amend our credit programs to reflect the reality of higher land values and higher costs.


The great outdoors was my playground

We swam in rivers all over, skated on ponds in the woods, hiked the Appalachian trail, hunted deer, fished, canoed. Enjoyed the great ospreys flying overhead. The beauty and bounty of nature was intertwined in our lives.

No one cares more about the land and about nature than those of us who grew up in rural America. Farmers are stewards - they want to do well by the environment.

USDA's conservation programs are a public good. It's reasonable for us to share in the cost of conservation efforts - to, as the NRCS slogan says, "Help people help the land."

But the series of budgetary crises over the past few months - from the continuing resolution in October to the Farm Bill extension and sequestration - have put America's conservation efforts in jeopardy.

  • A technical glitch in the Continuing Resolution put a stop to enrollment in the Conservation Stewardship Program, and the issue was not resolved in the Farm Bill extension. If this issue is not resolved, there will be no 2013 sign-up, which would result in a $1 billion loss to long-term Farm Bill conservation funding.
  • Under sequestration, cuts to the NRCS budget will mean that 11,000 producers and landowners will lose out on technical assistance and financial programs designed to preserve water quality and quantity, soil, and wildlife habitat.

Yet I don't want these threats to overshadow the accomplishments that we all have made together - and that we will stay committed to, despite fiscal uncertainties.

We're working on landscape-scale initiatives that bring together farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to find mutually-beneficial solutions. We're doing this in the Chesapeake Bay, in the Mississippi River Basin, and in 17 other places.

We want farmers to maximize their use of NRCS programs, but we're know it's difficult to ask a landowner to invest in conservation practices, especially during the tough years, unless they have certainty that the regulations governing our natural resources won't quickly change.

So we've been working with sister agencies and with state departments of natural resources to create a program called Regulatory Certainty.

It provides assurances to landowners that if they maintain certain conservation practices, they can continue to manage their lands even if the regulations governing that resource change - for example, if a species is added to the endangered species list, or if a new TMDL is coming down the pike.

Because we don't want you to be at risk if you are implementing state of the art conservation practices advised by USDA.

Now those of us who grew up in rural America grew up caring for the land, and we grew up enjoying all that it has to offer.

In this spirit, USDA is working with our federal partners to launch the America's Great Outdoors initiative, which is developing a 21st century conservation agenda linked to outdoor recreation efforts. That's helping to increase support for conservation.

Outdoor recreation brought more than $145 billion in economic benefits to the U.S. last year and supported hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Visitors to America's national forests support more than 200,000 jobs annually. When we expand habitat and outdoor recreational opportunities, we create more tourism dollars.

This is another example of diversification - bringing new economic opportunities to rural America.

I want to talk about another example of diversification: local and regional food systems.


Yes, I am a foodie

But maybe not the kind some people think when an image conjures up. I am a foodie that springs from my deep connections to rural America and to farmers. I grew up going to Ev Hatch's patch for my veggies, a farm up on country club road for my sweet corn, and waiting impatiently on the front stoop with my brother for the 'berry man' to drive buy and deliver quarts of freshly picked blueberries and raspberries. We went to the orchard to get our apples. And our ice cream came from Snows Ice Cream Company where the milk from the dairy was transformed into the most delicious desserts one can imagine. I should know. I was a waitress there for 5 years to earn money for college. We went to the turkey farm to pick out our Thanksgiving turkey (well, that is what our parents led us to believe).

I loved county fair time, where I helped in the RoundHouse and watched my farm friends compete showing their animals.

I knew my farmers. And I believe that when Americans know their farmers, they gain more appreciation for the hard work and sacrifice that goes into producing our food.

I also believe that local and regional food systems offer an opportunity for rural America. They're a place for beginning farmers to get started. They're an opportunity for experienced farmers to diversify their markets.

They're a way for mid-sized farmers - the disappearing middle - to stay viable and stay on the land by selling to larger local grocers and institutions. And they bring more Americans into contact with the men and women who grow and raise our food.

When our department was founded 150 years ago by Abraham Lincoln, 90 percent of population was rural and most people understood what agriculture was about. Today, USDA counts 2.3 million people as farmers, less than 1 percent of our population.

Helping the rest of America understand agriculture is critical to the future of the industry.

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative has thrown real weight behind USDA's work in this area.

We are helping fuel a national conversation about where our food comes from. That's a conversation that benefits all of agriculture - it helps consumers appreciate the hard work that goes into farming.

This is particularly important with young people. That's why, when I came on as Deputy Secretary, I launched a college tour to talk to students about agriculture. I've delivered 34 college lectures, reaching thousands of students across 24 states.

When it comes to educating consumers, farmers who are direct marketing or selling to local grocers or restaurants are helping to put a face on farming, especially for urban consumers.

Now, I understand that the majority of our industry isn't engaged in direct marketing. But those who are, they're our ambassadors, and we need them. Because when a consumer meets and talks to a farmer, it helps reduce the growing disconnect between those two worlds.

So these two goals - fueling the national conversation and making sure that USDA supports the development of regional food systems - have been the focus of KYF2. And we have accomplished a lot:

  • We've helped develop the infrastructure to connect farms and consumers locally. There are over 200 food hubs in operation nationwide.
  • USDA has funded 7,700 seasonal high tunnels from NRCS that are helping producers extend their growing season.
  • There's been a 67% increase in farmers markets since 2008, to over 7800 nationwide.
  • And we've expanded opportunities for local livestock producers through implementation of the interstate shipment program. North Dakota and Wisconsin just joined Ohio in signing agreements to allow certain state-inspected facilities to ship products across state lines.

This work is helping create economic linkages between rural and urban communities. And it's an example of the kind of diversity that makes agriculture strong.


Farm labor/diversity

When I was growing up, diversified farms were the norm, but if there was a dominant crop, it was cigar wrap tobacco. You may have noticed some remaining fields and tobacco barns if you flew into Bradly airport. We also had lots of cucumbers. During harvest, workers would come from Puerto Rico primarily. But we certainly needed to supplement our workforce to get the job done. It also led to more diversity in my school, which was almost entirely white.

Agriculture needs comprehensive immigration reform... not just because it will provide security for an extraordinary number of people who work in the agricultural industry, but because immigration brings diversity to rural America.

It brings people, it brings economic activity, and it brings new ideas.

USDA has also been hard at work addressing our own past and mistakes we've made. We've reviewed our policies and programs to improve the way they serve socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

We've announced historic settlements with African American farmers and Native American farmers, and are carrying out a unified claims process for Hispanic and Women farmers and ranchers.

We are stronger when we embrace the diversity of our agricultural industry. That goes for the people in it, the products they're creating - from biofuels to specialty crops - and the markets they're selling into.

One place that is benefiting from this emphasis on diverse products and urban-rural connections is the school cafeteria.



When I was editor of my high school newspaper, I wrote an editorial on vending machines in the school cafeteria. Way back when I was concerned that kids were forgoing school lunch for junk food.

I'm not going to say exactly how long ago that was, but let's just say that this problem has been around for a while and I finally have been able to help do something about it as Deputy Secretary. We now have a proposed rule that takes on the tough issue of competitive foods in schools. Nutrition has been so important in this Administration.

With the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, USDA has made real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs. 12 million children eat breakfast at school, and 32 million eat school lunch.

We've updated science-based standards to increase healthy offerings on the lunch line. More whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and low-fat dairy.

And we've developed a new farm to school grant program. In its first year, the $5 million program is supporting 68 projects in 37 states and DC, serving nearly 2 million students. A second round of grants just opened a few weeks ago.

These efforts will help ensure that school lunch trays echo the MyPlate icon, which encourages Americans to fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables.

But here's my question, my challenge for you.

We are working on many fronts to help Americans increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. Yet increasingly, we are meeting our domestic needs with imports.

Vegetable imports rose from 8 percent of total consumption in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

Fresh fruit imports rose from 12 percent to 25 percent.

MyPlate represents a tremendous economic opportunity for American agriculture. As American dietary patterns shift toward healthier foods, we should be asking how we can meet this demand with domestic production.

How can healthy eating also drive economic growth in our agricultural communities?

We have a window of opportunity to marry our nutrition agenda with an economic development agenda built around creating additional opportunities for American farmers. I'd like your help with that.

This is a challenge. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us in agriculture - and they will take cutting-edge research. That's the final topic I'd like to touch on today.



People ask how I got into Agriculture policy. Well, as you now know, I am from rural America and associated with Ag growing up. But it was my first job after college working for a state senator that sealed the deal. A small rural community - Whately - had ground water contamination problems from pesticide use that was so severe that homeowners were advised not even to shower in that water. I thought it would make sense to pinpoint potential other problems, so I started asking for records on pesticide use and maps of underground aquifers - Ha! These kinds of questions were novel at the time and communities were unprepared for what was to come.

Fast forward a few years. We have a new set of challenges, even greater challenges. We can see them coming, but we must invest in tools to be able to understand and address them.

Consider climate change. We don't fully understand what the impact will be in the long-term. But we are trying to tackle it. I'm proud to say that within the last four years, we've doubled research efforts to understand climate impact in ag.

We are seeing more intense weather patterns. It is already impacting crop production - I think of last summer's drought and the impact of Hurricane Irene on this region.

Earlier this year, the Secretary announced that 597 counties in 14 states have already been declared disaster areas because they have been on the drought monitor for more than eight consecutive weeks. That's a wake-up call for all of us that what we experienced last summer is not over.

Research doesn't just help us address these challenges. It helps us innovate to create the kinds of farming systems, technologies, and solutions to take on the challenges of the future and do it in a way that helps us thrive.



Looking ahead for NFU, the future is coming home.

Coming home to the core values of perseverance, creative innovation, and care for community.

It is creating a home that is unified, even as it is extremely diverse. A home that accommodates many different opportunities and approaches, making them all work... in order to work together.

It's also making a home for farmers of the future - supporting the next generation and helping them see how their unique talents and skills can advance our industry.

And it's about creating opportunity from challenges. Consumer interest in food quality and identity is a golden opportunity. Consumers want your products to be part of their home, but in turn they want to visit your place too. That's not always comfortable, but it's part of our new reality. I challenge you to make the most of it.

When I was a little kid in elementary school, we had to choose a poem to memorize. I choose one by William Carlos Williams, probably because it was short. But it stuck with me for the ages. For me, this poem represents home. It represents the centrality of agriculture in all of our lives. You know it - It goes like this:

So much depends


A red wheel


Glazed with rain


Beside the white


It is still as meaningful as anything I have read.

Thank you, NFU.

  • Thank you for your partnership.
  • Thank you for your support, four years ago, for my candidacy for a position in the Obama Administration.
  • Thank you for your leadership in rural America.
  • Thank you for feeding my family and families around the globe.

Ladies and Gentlemen, enjoy your time in the Baystate.

It is great to be home.