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U.S. Deputy Agriculture Secretary Lauds VLS Initiative to Improve Nation's Food System

September 28, 2012

Agriculture is hip—from rural cornfields and college campuses to Capitol Hill cocktail parties and committee hearings.

That was the word Friday from Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who told Vermont Law School's inaugural Conference on Agriculture and Food Systems that public interest in farming and food will continue to grow as Americans confront the challenge of feeding themselves without polluting their air, waters and landscape.Image of Kathleen Merrigan

"Ag is back," Merrigan told about 250 students, faculty, visiting scholars, farmers, food producers, regulators, federal and state government officials, non-profit advocates and others in a keynote address via live video feed in the Chase Community Center.

"I always joke that in the old days I used to go to a party and people would say, 'What do you do for work,' and I would say, 'I work in agriculture,' and I'd be left in the corner somewhere with my gin and tonic," she recently told The New York Times. "Now I say I work in agriculture and I'm the belle of the ball."

The day-long conference, which was organized by the Vermont Law Review, spotlighted the VLS Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, which was launched last year to train the next generation of legal advocates to add desperately needed resources to the communities and organizations working to address the complexities posed by local, sustainable, community-based agriculture.

The conference included panel discussions on agriculture and water quality, public health issues related to food production and consumption, public regulation of genetically modified organisms, sustainable animal agriculture, the future of federal farm policy, and Vermont agriculture as prototype for the nation.

Merrigan congratulated VLS and Dean Marc Mihaly for creating the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems. "It's the kind of group that's needed to dig into these critical food issues," she said, adding that VLS students should anticipate growth in the number of law and policy jobs in agriculture as the nation's food production system tries to adapt to climate change, to sustain small- and medium-size farmers, to reduce farm pollution runoff and to provide access to healthy food for all Americans.

Merrigan oversees the day-to-day operation of the USDA and spearheads the agency's $149 billion budget. She is second in command at the agency, handling issues from farm subsidies to food consumers, production and safety. An environmental planner, she authored the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and supports conservation and sustainable land use, community gardens, marketing strategies between consumers and local farmers and promoting food education in schools. She managed the USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" effort to highlight the connection between farmers and consumers and to support local and regional food systems that increase economic opportunities in rural America.

"We need to encourage healthy eating, to develop local and regional food systems that meet demand, to create jobs and to innovate on the long-term policy side in land use decisions, food labeling and other key areas," Merrigan said.

A major problem is the nation's shortage of young people going into farming and ranching, where better access is needed to land, capital and credit, she said. "We need to repopulate our working lands," she added.

The most pressing issue, however, is passage of the Farm Bill, which expired Oct. 1 and is needed to reauthorize laws, policies and funding for the nation's agriculture system. The bill's expiration stopped dairy supports Sept. 30 and makes crop subsidies uncertain, but government funding continues through March 2013 for food stamps, nutrition programs and other key programs. After the Nov. 6 election, Congress is slated to resume working on the farm bill. The Senate has passed a version, but the House of Representatives has failed to take action.

"There's huge uncertainty until the Farm Bill is settled," Merrigan said.

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