In David Masumoto’s beautiful book, Harvest Son, he writes about pruning 80-year-old grapevines on the Central Valley farm he inherited from his father. When pruning grapevines, he instructs, you don’t just plan for the year ahead. You make the cuts so you can grow successfully season after season after season.
Masumoto’s grapevines provide a useful metaphor for examining the evolution of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the first six months of the Obama administration.
Although President Barack Obama talked at length about changing agricultural policy reform during the campaign, he doesn’t have much of a track record as a reformer. When he appointed former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack—an agribusiness insider—as the USDA’s secretary last December, proponents of organic and sustainable farming worried that Obama had cut once when he should have measured twice.
However, those concerns were eased in February, when Obama appointed organic-food expert Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary of agriculture, replacing Bush appointee Charles Conner, the former president of the Corn Refiners Association.
Talk about your green shoots! Merrigan has a doctorate in environmental planning and has been credited for helping develop U.S. organic-food labeling rules as well as authoring the 1990 Organic Foods Productions Act. In a telephone interview last week, she talked about her plans to redirect USDA policies to support what she calls the disappearing “middle farmers.”
“We see this really vibrant, exciting trend of new, young farmers, a lot of them selling direct,” she said. “I think that’s really exciting, and I’m really happy to marshal the kind of programs we have at USDA to facilitate those trends. It’s those guys in the middle that are just in collapse, they’re really finding it hard to make ends meet. I’m sitting here, saying, ‘Who’s going to be the future for American agriculture, and how do we marshal our programs so we have the appropriate safety nets in place for those people who are just not making ends meet right now?’”
With those struggling middle farmers in mind, the agency is preparing to announce a $50 million plan to help them move toward organic production.
“In California, there’s a real struggle going on in those size operations, and so that’s got to be central to what we do at USDA,” she said. “Part of the way we help these farmers, I believe, is continuing the work in trying to let Americans understand that our best farmers are also our best environmental stewards.”
However, while $50 million is important, the truth is it’s only a small rounding error compared to the billions of dollars in subsidies doled out to big agriculture. The fear is that the food and agriculture industry is so powerful, nothing will change. With Merrigan’s appointment, I’m much more confident with Obama’s hands on the shears than his predecessor’s.