“Weeds are nasty,” said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan.
I think most of us would agree. Weeds are not nice. But unlike the rest of us, Merrigan is actually doing something about it. On January 21, Merrigan came to town to award a $495,000 grant to UC Davis researchers to combat those persistent sprouts that grow where they are not wanted.
I learned at Merrigan’s press conference that Dr. Marie Jasieniuk, a researcher in the department of plant sciences at UC Davis, is “conducting research to develop economical and environmentally sound strategies for managing invasive weeds and preventing the spread of invasive weeds in agro ecosystems that provide tree fruits and nuts as well as wine, table and raisin grapes.” In plain English, Jasieniuk and her crack team of weed killers are going to try to figure out what to do about the hardy new crop of weeds that survive or even thrive when sprayed with Roundup.
The UC Davis grant is part of a $4.6 million anti-weed campaign involving 13 American universities. And if combating weeds isn’t challenging enough, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is also taking on a much more complicated problem—the current economic makeup of American agriculture.
Right now, a relatively small number of food manufacturers and giant food retailers dictate prices to a large number of the country’s farmers. According to the USDA, after paying for marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing, only 20 cents of each dollar that we spend on food gets back to the American farmer. Unlike the Bush administration, the Obama administration—led by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Merrigan—has been willing to tackle the issue.
Merrigan said that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice “will be holding a series of hearings around the country about the competitive practices in agriculture.” In addition to investigating the economics of agriculture, the USDA is promoting a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, designed to connect consumers with local farmers and local food products. Strengthening regional food systems should help keep food prices down while giving more of our food dollars back to local farmers. Oh, and by the way, it will make us healthier, too.
When I spoke to Merrigan after the press conference about what she hopes to accomplish during her tenure as deputy secretary of agriculture, she said, “To have many more vibrant rural communities, because we’ve found a way to build local and regional food systems that accommodate small, moderate-sized farmers as well as the big guy.”
Seems like a worthy challenge. And while she’s at it, she plans to make sure there are fewer weeds.