Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Meet Kathleen Merrigan Mother of Organic” was written by Theresa Marquez for the Spring 2008 edition of Rootstock.

Some of us old-timers still remember the early days (late 80’s) of lobbying for a federally mandated National Organic Program we now simply refer to as the NOP. It was an unprecedented effort and process that got the attention of law makers even though total organic production was less than of 1% then and still is only 1% of ag production today. Thousands of farmers, consumers and food industry members supported the concept of a NOP. So many dedicated organic supporters worked on the law. It became an act of Congress in 1990 and then the rule making began. We all remember the first draft in 1997 when the USDA received a record 207,603 responses. Finally, in 1999 it was the dedication of one woman (with a great staff behind her) that took the rule making on and completed it in 2001. Meet Kathleen Merrigan, the Mother of Organic!

Kathleen Merrigan speaks at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit on Friday, October 14, 2011 in Atlanta, Ga. (USDA photo by Debbie Smoot)

Kathleen Merrigan speaks at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit (USDA photo by Debbie Smoot).

Kathleen graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts and in 1987 got her Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas. She went straight from grad school to working for Senator Patrick Leahy, who was at the time Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and a member of the Senate Appropriations committee. We have to thank and admire Senator Leahy for his tireless support on behalf of organic but particularly for his vision to prioritize Sustainable Agriculture by hiring and assigning Merrigan to this critical topic. “I was responsible for issues related to agricultural extension, research, sustainable agriculture and pesticides. But frankly, sustainable agriculture was not an ‘in’ issue as it is now and many of my congressional colleagues tried to keep me on the sidelines of ag policy. Probably my greatest satisfaction from my years in the Senate was working with organic farmers and advocates to draft the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and seeing it become law.”

Choosing Merrigan for this assignment must have been easy for Senator Leahy. Having spent many years prior as a student and Fulbright scholar studying environmental planning, water policy issues and policy regarding pesticides, Kathleen’s interest and background was a perfect match. With her characteristic Irish enthusiasm and intelligence, she began at the top — getting to know the organic farmers. “This was a wonderful time for me because I got to meet and host many organic farmers who would come to my house and talk about organic agriculture until late into the night and end up sleeping on my couch.”

After five years working with Senator Leahy, Merrigan took a job at the prestigious Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture as Senior Analyst responsible
for monitoring national agriculture and food systems policy. As Senior Analyst, she worked with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as an expert consultant responsible for drafting and developing consensus on organic agriculture — the paper adopted by the Conference of Member Nations. During this time, the energetic Merrigan went back to MIT and made great strides toward her doctorate dissertation. (PhD awarded in 2000 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Environmental Planning and Policy).


Kathleen Merrigan chats with students during National School Lunch Week and Farm to School Month (USDA photo by Debbie Smoot).

Kathleen recalls the time in 1999 (also the year daughter Fiona was born) as she was pondering her future career path. Garth Youngburg was retiring and many changes for
the Wallace Institute were in the works. “I wanted to go back to school to spend time on my doctorate degree to finish it and at the same time, I needed a job but with all
the changes at Wallace, I wanted to do something different. I went to Rich Rominger who was then Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and asked him for a job. I wasn’t expecting much and, to my surprise, he suggested that I consider a senior political appointment. Senator Daschle helped campaign for me to get a high level political appointment. So did Senator Lugar, at the time the ranking minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. My best friend’s dad was a legislator in Arkansas and he flew up from Arkansas to lobby on my behalf. We had a classic meeting at the Willard (a famous hotel in DC where such meetings are common place), where we strategized ways to help me get the appointment. I put together a supporting political coalition and had strong insider support. (can I say “good Ol’ boys?”) And there was a need. There was a first proposed organic rule widely contested — and they needed someone who understood the organic standards and what was going on in the organic industry.” Before she knew it Merrigan was head of a billion dollar agency with 10,000 person staff as Director of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). And the rest is history! From 1999 to 2001 Kathleen Merrigan as head of the AMS, made the National Organic Program one of her highest priorities.

Merrigan’s style was unconventional right from the start. “I walked the halls to solve problems.” At that time, the head of AMS did not communicate in that way. It was all by
email, and messages sent by staff. “When I wanted to get something done, I just showed up.”

Regarding the arduous task of writing the rule, Merrigan feels her best effort was in the process of the rule making. “Transparency was a high priority for me. I had a notebook on all the comment streams! We were always ready to provide good explanation for our reasoning. All the input on the first proposed rule and final rule were well documented. I made sure that all input and suggestions were responded to. It was important that all the people who gave input knew they were heard. The effort to put the rulemaking on the web was successful and it became the model for Federal government electronic rulemaking.

People were passionate about the work and many of us spent all nighters reviewing comments and writing the rule. We had a GREAT team. I wrote some of it, edited more of
it, and studied every word.” Merrigan says that at the end of the day, the rule was two feet high and seven pounds of paper!

Merrigan laughs remembering the birth of her son Seamus. Like most moms, she proved her ability to multitask! “Seamus was born on November 1, 2000 and my first phone call right after child birth was from the deputy administrator who congratulated me on the birth of my new son and then immediately said, ‘about that rule…’ We had 41,000 comments on the second proposed rule and time was running out to do the necessary fine-tuning. Finally, we finished the organic rule in December 2000. We were rushing to get it out before the Bush administration came to power and we were replaced.

I am very proud of the structure of the discussion that accompanies it which explains our rationale.”

Merrigan admits the rule is not perfect. In fact, the challenge in organic is that we are always seeking perfection. Merrigan wishes for example, that there were more in the law pertaining to animal welfare. Upon leaving the AMS, a long list of “to dos” were noted.

Merrigan and staff adhered to the saying, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Today, the Organic rule, while not perfect, is still the most comprehensive and strictest set of agricultural production practices in the world. And the good news, the concept of “continual improvement” is imbedded into the process both through the Farm Plan and through the process of public comment. The National Organic Program was initiated first by the farmers and then the citizens became involved. The organic standard truly represents farmers and citizens working together, but without the dedication, intelligence and heart of Kathleen Merrigan, we would not have the recognition we have today.