A Conversation with USDA Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan
Sunday, November 13th, 2011
(Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan met with farmers and business owners Nov. 2 in Athens, Ga., as part of a series of roundtable discussions to be held across the country this fall with senior officials from President Obama’s administration, asking guidance on how the administration can bolster rural development.
Growinggeorgia.com contributing editor Chuck Strangward spoke with Merrigan soon after the roundtable. The discussion has been edited for length.)
Strangward: How is the American Jobs Act going to impact the agriculture industry in Georgia?
Merrigan: If you’re an employer—say you run a poultry operation—one thing that the American Jobs Act would do is cut the payroll tax in half on the first $5 million in wages. So for Georgia, that means 180,000 firms would receive a payroll tax cut.
Strangward: What are some other areas that might be impacted?
Merrigan: There would be about $1.5 billion toward infrastructure investment in Georgia that would amount to 13,600 jobs. At the roundtable, we discussed extending unemployment insurance for the 77,000 Georgians who have lost their jobs but who haven’t found new jobs because of the lagging economy.
The crowd at the roundtable also wanted to talk about regulations and streamlining government bureaucracy, as well as opportunities in export markets, which have been enhanced by the passage of the free trade agreements recently, which we expect will be a boost of $2.3 billion for American agriculture. The trade agreement involves Colombia, Panama and South Korea. South Korea has the fifteenth largest economy in the world and opening trade doors there is a great opportunity for American agriculture.
Strangward: Farmers are certainly more aware of markets that were previously inaccessible. But going back to streamlining, can you think of a concrete example of how that would be accomplished?
Merrigan: There are efforts underway at the USDA to model ourselves on the American university system. When I was in college, each school had its individual application you had to fill out. Now there’s a thing called a common app, through which students can apply to a lot of different colleges simultaneously.
Why don’t we have a common application for access to some of the USDA’s world development programs and their conservation programs? We’re working on that now at USDA. If you are a civic volunteer or do not have access to a government official or specialist, tackling an 80-page application can be overwhelming, and we’re working to simplify things.
Strangward: It’s difficult to talk agriculture without mentioning the farm bill. How does the bill address rural economic growth as well as providing a safety net for farmers?
Merrigan: I’m a veteran hill staffer and worked for Senator (Patrick) Leahy for several years on the Senate Agriculture Committee, including when we wrote the 1990 bill. Essentially, the writing of the bill is congressionally driven. In this farm bill process, the USDA is providing technical support.
What’s different about this farm bill is that it’s being written in the shadow of the deficit supercommittee and the debt reduction efforts that are under way. And so there are very few people in the room, so to speak. It’s not a lot of hearings and floor votes and public involvement. It’s really just trying to survive the current budget crisis.
Strangward: As an industry, agriculture is thriving right now. Commodity prices are high, though with those prices have come higher input costs. History has shown that commodity prices will probably go back down while input costs will likely stay the same. What do you think should be considered within the new farm bill to ensure that it provides fair consideration for all regions of the U.S. as well as maintaining a safety net for farmers?
Merrigan: We need a really strong disaster program. We need crop insurance and a safety net for farmers. Crop prices are good, but you a need a crop.
The secretary (Tom Vilsack) and I travel quite a bit. This past spring we met people who weren’t able to plant a crop because their land was flooded. We saw fires in the Southwest destroy forests and grazing land. Then, really recently, we saw farmers just about to harvest fields of fruits and vegetables, and they got hit by Irene and lost everything.
The safety net programs are really critical. We’re not going to back away from our very, very strong advocacy for them to be a centerpiece of the farm bill.
Strangward: How do you leverage the development and prosperity of agriculture into broader economic growth? I know that’s a big question, but what is your opinion on how it’s being done or being thought about inside the Beltway?
Merrigan: Well, agriculture is seen as a real economic “win” in Washington. When people talk about trade deficits they’re not talking about agriculture. We’ve had a positive balance of trade for nearly five decades. We raise most of our food here and supply the rest of the world. I think that the overarching perspective in Washington about agriculture is that it’s a strong sector, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to continue to support it and find ways to make it stronger.
Overall, we have a problem in that only 1 percent of the population has direct contact with farms and ranches: They grew up there. They work there. We get 99 percent of Americans who don’t fully understand the agricultural enterprise. And when you’re in budget-cutting times, that’s a disconnect that’s not good for us. The lack of understanding about where USDA dollars goes is pretty profound.
I use the example that 74 percent of USDA’s budget goes to nutrition assistance. Most people think it’s farm subsidies. I’m like, “Farm subsidies?! That’s just a tiny sliver of our budget pie.” So I am trying to help educate when I go around the country about just what the realities are.