April 2, 2012

Merrigan stresses need for young leaders in agriculture pipeline

Kathleen A. Merrigan is out to prove Yahoo wrong.

Earlier this year, a Yahoo blog post on useless college majors included agriculture and horticulture in the top five – a point that many in academia and the industry have hotly refuted.

Deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Merrigan has been traveling to colleges and universities around the U.S. – 27 so far – to spread the word that jobs in agriculture are not only alive and well, but plentiful and varied.

“I will jump on the bandwagon (denouncing) on that Yahoo posting,” she said. “It seemed to be so out of touch with the reality of what we know the situation to be.”

Merrigan was speaking to follow up a recent visit she made to the Produce Marketing Association’s Emerging Leaders Program, where she met with several dozen young produce industry professionals. A joint effort of the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent and the Thunderbird School of Global Management, the program is designed to attract, develop and retain talent for the produce industry.

It’s a much-needed effort, Merrigan said.

“We’re facing a major transition right now on our working lands in this country with the average age of farmers being in their late 50s,” she said.

There are also many opportunities in ag-associated business functions, she noted.

“It’s not just about farming, it’s about food safety, marketing, finance,” she said.

“That’s why the best and the brightest need opportunities. In the produce industry today, what you know counts as much as what you grow.”

Meeting with PMA’s young professionals, and with students on American college campuses, Merrigan said she has been stressing that the industry needs strong new leaders.

“I always point to the produce industry as one of the greatest places of opportunity for young people,” she said. “Because you can start on a smaller scale.”

Mirroring the industry, USDA is also going to need a fresh crop of leaders in the years ahead. Merrigan said a graying federal workforce and budget-cutting retirement incentives mean the department is seeing “significant” retirements.

And Merrigan said she would like to see more women find their way to future industry and USDA opportunities.

“The number of emerging leaders that were women were still a smaller part of the class,” she said.

While more women and minorities are coming into the field, she said, greater focus is needed on that front.

“It takes a pipeline, and that’s what was so great about (the Emerging Leaders Program), is that there is a conscious effort to recruit and train leaders to provide them the skill sets they need,” she said.

PMA president and CEO Bryan Silbermann, also participating in the conference call, likened what Merrigan was describing to a freeway entrance ramp.

“It’s all about a continuum,” he said, “bringing people into the industry.”

To illustrate, he cited a recent training session in Fairfax, Va., that had about 40 growers participating to learn about techniques that have already been adopted by their large-scale brethren.

“It’s the small folks wanting to go mainstream – get on the freeway,” he said.


Photos: This year’s Produce Marketing Association Emerging Leaders Class; U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen A. Merrigan attending the Emerging Leaders event. Photos courtesy of PMA.



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