Around this time last year, Arizona Farm Bureau and Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), had a great conversation about Arizona Farming and Ranching. The following conversation highlights Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan's visit to our diverse agriculture state.

Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D, is the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Working alongside Secretary Tom Vilsack as second-in-command, Merrigan oversees the day-to-day operation of USDA’s many programs and spearheads the $149 billion USDA budget process. Serving on the President’s Management Council, she comes to USDA from a decades-long career in policy, legislation, and research.

Merrigan, who holds her Ph.D. degree in environmental planning and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, manages the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food effort to highlight the connection between farmers and consumers and support local and regional food systems that increase economic opportunity in rural America. In 2009, she made history as the first woman to chair the Ministerial Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Time magazine named Dr. Merrigan among the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2010. Before becoming Deputy Secretary, Merrigan served for eight years as Assistant Professor and Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment graduate program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts.

Last year, Merrigan was in town to visit Arizona farmers, get an overview of our state’s agriculture and tour Zimmerman Dairy in Queen Creek, which was awarded a $300,000 USDA Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) grant last year to install a solar panel.

Members of Arizona Farm Bureau, Bill and Vicky Zimmerman hosted Merrigan to a tour of their dairy that was founded in 1923 by Bill’s grandfather. The 1,200-cow Queen Creek dairy installed the $1.4 million solar panel project on a two-acre parcel and combined the grant (which paid for a quarter of the cost) with subsidies from Salt River Project (SRP) and other low interest loans. The Zimmermans are already saving more than $50,000 a year in energy costs.

Because of the SRP partnership, any excess energy goes back to SRP through a net metering program and gives the Zimmermans credit toward their electricity bill. The Solar panels produce 443,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, about the same amount of energy 30 households consume in one year, which goes to power the milking parlor and the farm wells.

Said Vicky back then when Merrigan visited, “We were excited to show that it’s a win win situation. With more USDA dollars committed to such projects, other dairies would have an opportunity to participate.”

In a one-on-one interview with Merrigan when she was in Arizona last year, Arizona Farm Bureau’s monthly publication Arizona Agriculture asked her about USDA’s latest tools and opportunities for farmers and ranchers, Arizona agriculture and how USDA can help combat some of the negative press the media gives “big Ag.”

Arizona Agriculture: What can Farm Bureaus do to help promote USDA grants and other opportunities?

Deputy Secretary Merrigan: I certainly want people to use [USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass Map] because visitors looking at the compass can read the narrative and use the mapping too!

So many more people could use it to their advantage. Plus, the compass which is the narrative has lots of case studies. It’s often hard for people to master the bureaucracy at USDA especially when all in the abstract. So we profile people that have successfully utilized USDA services to build local/regional food hubs. People that have successfully used USDA resources should share their stories.

Arizona Agriculture: Arizona’s $12.4 billion agriculture industry might seem small compared to a Florida or California, but is obviously quite significant to our state’s economy. What impresses you most about our state’s agriculture?

Deputy Secretary Merrigan: There is more diversity here than some people might realize. I am very impressed with all the challenges Arizona faces around water management. That has certainly been a consistent theme during my visit here.

I’m very impressed with what I see are the opportunities for energy for Arizona and energy in agriculture, specifically. I think they go hand in hand.

I’m impressed with a lot that I’ve seen here in the state. Additionally, we have a lot of forest land in Arizona and some people forget that the Forest Service is part of the USDA. I’m very cognizant in those conversations about water; about the potential for a bad fire season. Already in my mind, I’m starting to think about resources and what needs to be sent out to Arizona. We’re pressing Congress to fund more air tanker capacity at USDA.

Arizona Agriculture: Did you realize of our top 15 agriculture commodities in the state, the majority of them are specialty crops? How do we continue to grow markets for our specialty crops?

Deputy Secretary Merrigan: With, our icon for the new 2010 dietary guidelines where we’re suggesting people should be eating a half a plate of fruits and vegetables, the opportunity for increased market share for specialty crops is very much there and Arizona is well-primed to deliver on those consumer demands. Our First Lady, as she dances around the country with the “Let’s Move” initiative singing along with Beyonce, has done so much to raise awareness of the need to change diets, especially children’s diets, and put more fruits and vegetables on their plates.

Arizona Agriculture: While Arizona’s $12.4 billion agriculture industry has a great direct-market agriculture niche, it’s still less than 2% of our agriculture. How do we make sure we protect agriculture overall regardless of shape, size, method and type of agriculture commodity?

Deputy Secretary Merrigan: Well, I’ll go back to the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative. Perhaps sounding a little bit like a broken record here, but part of the initiative is deploying USDA resources to help build local regional food systems. Another part of the initiative is about having a long overdue national conversation about where our food comes from, how it was produced and who produces it.

We understand that farms can be good neighbors and that the dairy doesn’t constantly have to flee their space and be pushed out farther and farther and even being pushed out of the state. How does that happen? It happens by having a national conversation.

Arizona Agriculture: There seems to be an attitude in America that “big is bad” but “big Ag,” the majority owned by families, is feeding America. How can the USDA help us combat the onslaught of bad press that’s arrayed against large farming and ranching operations, especially when considering that 98% of farms and ranches are family owned? They may be big, they may even be incorporated, but they’re family owned?

Deputy Secretary Merrigan: Yeah, well I don’t know what the answer is there. But what I can tell you is that Secretary Vilsack and I are very aware of that problem and we’re using our voice to the extent that we have a public face to say loud and clear that it’s important to care about where your food comes from.

Farmers are rock stars and they endure under challenging situations and doing great by our economy five decades pretty much of a positive balance of trade and untold success stories. There are so many things to cheer about that that’s what we’re doing.

Last thing I’d say again going back to that local regional, not everyone is going to be at a farmers market or selling into a farm to school program but some of those guys who do it are good ambassadors for American agriculture because we need that face; we need to get away from the abstract to the real. 

Our Farm Bureau members know the value of collaborative relationships including important connections such as the one with Deputy Secretary Merrigan. Join the family to learn more about what we do.  Join our Family!