The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s number two in command, Kathleen Merrigan, a longtime advocate of local and regional food systems, announced yesterday she will be leaving her post.

Deputy Secretary Merrigan, who led the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative throughout President Obama’s first term, did not say when she would step down or where she will go next, but a USDA official said Merrigan plans to stay in her current role through the end of April.

Longtime agriculture reporter Philip Brasher noted today that Merrigan will be “nearly impossible to replace, if the administration wants someone else like her.”

“The job is normally an invisible one, running USDA’s day-to-day operations,” he wrote, in Roll Call. “But Merrigan’s knowledgeable and public advocacy of organic agriculture and locally grown foods gave those issues a profile they’ve never had before and appealed to foodies and a significant portion of Obama’s political base that is skeptical of conventional agriculture.

An hour after The Hagstrom Report (subscription only) broke the news on Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement.

“USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has helped USDA achieve record results over the past four years, said Vilsack. “She has played a vital role in the Department-wide focus on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, as well as our efforts to achieve budget efficiencies and savings during an uncertain budget time. Deputy Secretary Merrigan has led USDA’s efforts to implement important regulations, and she has been an important advocate for a strong National Organic Program.”

“I deeply appreciate her service, and I wish her all the best in her future endeavors,” he added.

In her email announcement, Merrigan thanked the president for the opportunity to serve as part of the administration, the Senate for her unanimous confirmation, and Senatory Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for helping to support certain USDA programs.

“It has been an ambitious first term,” wrote Merrigan. “From implementing the 2008 farm bill, improving school meals, expanding opportunities for American farmers, spending countless hours in the White House situation room, to shepherding USDA budgets through challenging times, it has been an honor to play a small part in history.”

“I hope that during my tenure, I was able to help open USDA’s doors a little wider, inviting new and discouraged constituencies to participate in USDA programs,” she added. “With Secretary Vilsack at the helm, aided by very talented and dedicated USDA employees, I am able to leave fully confident that, even in these difficult budget times, USDA will thrive and continue to improve its service to the American people.”

Merrigan and food safety

A year ago this month, Merrigan’s team at USDA launched a fancy new tool to help small and mid-sized farmers come up with food safety plans without needing to hire expensive consultants.

As Food Safety News reported last year, the tool, part of’s On-Farm Food Safety Project, is the first of its kind that has a broad range of input and expertise — from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to trade groups to ag extension specialists. It is aimed at helping small- and mid-sized farmers to achieve Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) harmonized standards and certification to help ensure fruits and vegetables are produced, handled and stored in the safest manner possible.

“It’s free to farmers,” said Merrigan at the launch. “So you can go on to the website… and it’ll ask you questions, kind of like TurboTax, if you’ve every used TurboTax in tax filing season. It asks you particular questions and at the end you hit print and you get your food safety plan.”

“We are doing a lot, I think, to help small farmers,” she said. “If you’re vending into a school or farm-to-institution situation, or even if you’re direct to farmer’s market, of course you want to have high levels of food safety. We’re trying to develop tools to help people out.”

While Merrigan’s depature will leave a hole at USDA, insiders are hopeful that the support for local and regional food systems work – inside and outside the department – is strong enough to keep all the programs Merrigan helped start going for years to come, to become a core part of USDA’s mission going forward.