Former deputy ag secretary Kathleen Merrigan highlights the top non-farm-bill issues that are currently impacting agriculture.
Asked why she had recently left her job as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture after four years, Kathleen Merrigan noted that she was just one of many deputy secretaries who had left the administration recently. "Why?" she asked. "Because it’s a hard job."
By contrast, Merrigan appeared to enjoy standing in front of a welcoming audience and giving her keynote address at Crop Life’s 2013 National Policy Conference. She was asked to discuss the top political issues–excluding the farm bill—that currently impact agriculture.
Here’s her top 10:
1. Immigration Reform. We may be on the cusp of immigration reform, Merrigan said, noting an immigration bill was passed out of committee yesterday. She not only heard from many people about the need for immigration reform, but she also saw the need herself on a recent trip throughout her home state of Massachusetts.
2. Tax Reform. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who recently announced that he will retire in 2014, wants to pass a tax reform bill before he leaves office. In the meantime, she said, the public appears to be irritated by large companies, such as Apple, avoiding U.S. taxes by managing their finances through other countries. "All this adds up to a lot of energy in this space."
Merrigan, who also worked on Capitol Hill, said agriculture might be able to secure a new approach to estate taxes. She noted that any startup farmer coming from other industries will need a lot of capital. She held out the possibility of treating "sweat equity" differently for estate tax purposes.
3. Food safety. FDA’s pending food safety regulations are "big" and likely to change agriculture "more than you might imagine." But Merrigan, who met with FDA officials on the proposed regulations, indicated the proposal will likely be revised before its finalized. "My view has always been: no one gets a pass on food safety."
4. Foreign-Trade Agreements. Developing a free-trade agreement with the European Union will be tough, she said, but it could create big opportunities for U.S. producers. A trade agreement with the Trans-Pacific partnership, she said, is also within reach. This treaty could create a huge new market opportunity for certain fruits, vegetables, and nuts where U.S. producers don’t have decent access currently.
5. Fruits and vegetables. "We’re moving in the right direction," Merrigan said. "The MyPlate diagram is sleek and cool, easy to understand. The message is you need a half plate of fruits and vegetables. We’re seeing some drop off in obesity." She credits the First Lady for doing a great job taking on an intractable problem.
On a related note, Merrigan believes that producing fruits and vegetables for local markets is a great way for young people to get started in agriculture, especially since demand is growing. "You can do a high-value crop on small acreage and get a foothold in the market."
6. The Federal Budget. During her four years at USDA, she cut the department’s $150 billion budget by 15%. "Cutting is tough," she said, crediting her boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for being fearless in examining, challenging and cutting budget items. "There’s definitely money that can be squeezed out of the bureaucracy," she said.
But the budget-cutting process, she said, has moved into an even more difficult phase. Vilsack faces tough choices as he complies with sequestration requirements over the coming decade. "There are certain things you can’t cut," she said. USDA needs to battle fires through fire suppression, fund certain nutrition programs, and provide rental assistance.
Dealing with public perceptions is part of the difficulty. Merrigan spoke at dozens of colleges during her time at USDA. She’d give hand-held devices to the audiences and ask them questions to gauge the depth of their knowledge about agricultural issues. She’d ask the students to identify the biggest item in the USDA budget. Farm subsidies were the typical student response. When she told the audience the correct response was nutrition programs, "you could just feel the confusion in the room."
7. Certainty Programs. Merrigan believes that farmers who engage in state-of-the-art conservation should have some certainty that they won’t be regulated out of business. "If farming is done well, it’s the best thing for the environment," she said.
8. Eco-System Markets. There’s "a lot of good energy around the issue" of creating eco-system markets to reward farmers for conservation stewardship. Though a recent effort to create a market collapsed, Merrigan believes this initiative will expand in the future.
9. GMO labeling. Merrigan described this as a "sort of whack-a-mole" problem. USDA and FDA haven’t allowed organic producers to put "non-GMO" on labels, but support is growing in some states, such as Washington, to require labeling. She says people want a verdict and she doesn’t expect the issue to go away.
10. Aging of American farmers and transition on working lands. For every farmer under 35 years of age, we have 6 over the age of 65, Merrigan said. During her term of office, she met dairy farmers in their 80s who couldn’t figure out how to transition their operation, and young people who were in way over their heads. "This is a huge issue," she said.