Kathleen Ann Merrigan has been known to wear Birkenstocks. She eats granola, too. Her husband, a law professor who writes about gender equity, is now a stay-at-home dad. She describes her new job managing more than 10,000 public employees as "groovy." And she scrapped her agency's annual Christmas party because she thought it might offend non-Christians.

Yes, Merrigan is a right-wing nightmare come true, an unreconstructed liberal activist in charge of a billion-dollar bureaucracy. In her last job, at the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, she helped organize a massive grass-roots campaign to scuttle the U.S. Department of Agriculture's modest proposed standards for organic food. In her new job, running the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), she's rewriting that very proposal.

It is unusual enough--and to some farm constituencies, scary enough--that an outspoken advocate of sustainable agriculture (which places strong emphasis on social and environmental do-goodism) has seized control of the high-stakes organic food debate. But her bailiwick now extends far beyond the nation's 12,000 or so organic farmers. The AMS also runs the school lunch program, decides what constitutes USDA Prime beef and Grade A eggs and oversees the department's 50-plus advisory committees.

"I'm probably not a typical administrator," said Merrigan, 40, who asks all her employees to call her Kathleen. "But I really feel like I can be myself in this job."

Not everyone is happy about that. After Merrigan was appointed in June, she immediately launched a controversial crusade to diversify those white-male-dominated advisory committees, forcing them to establish outreach plans to recruit women, minorities and disabled people. In many cases, she refused to forward their nomination slates to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman until she was satisfied with their commitment to diversity.

After she blocked nominations to the Florida Tomato Committee, complaining that it hadn't made a "significant effort" to attract women and minorities, the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, lampooned her in an article titled "Attack of the Tomato Killers." The Packer, an agricultural publication, described her crusade as "Beltway Blindness." In a nasty letter to Glickman, committee manager Wayne Hawkins said he was resigning and going into business: "I plan to find a female Afro-American who is confined to a wheelchair to be my partner. This way I will meet all of the government diversification requirements."

But Merrigan seems quite popular at the USDA--she did, it must be noted, replace the canceled Christmas party with a "Millennium Bash"--and the Clinton administration is backing her up.

"I know it's been unsettling for these committees; they keep saying they just don't have women and minority candidates," she said. "But I'm digging in my heels. And when push comes to shove, lo and behold, they find there are some women and minorities, after all."

Merrigan grew up in rural Greenfield, Mass.; her grandfather was a farmer, and her father, a teacher, sold farm products every summer. During her first job after college--working for state Sen. John W. Olver (D-Mass.), who is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives--she got interested in sustainable agriculture after pesticides caused major groundwater contamination in his district. She later worked on pesticide issues for Jim Hightower--then a Texas agriculture official, now a prominent liberal talk-show host.

Then, John D. Podesta--now President Clinton's chief of staff--hired her to work for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate Agriculture Committee, where she drafted the organic food section of the 1990 farm bill.

That bill required the USDA to develop national standards for organic food, but when the department finally offered a plan in 1997, Merrigan helped drum up an unheard-of 275,603 public comments, including her own 100-page, single-spaced denunciation. The organic food industry was outraged that the USDA plan would allow genetic engineering, irradiation and the use of sewage sludge in growing supposedly natural food.

So the department went back to the drawing board--and now Merrigan is holding the crayons.

"Obviously, people who support sustainable agriculture are very excited about this," said Chuck Hassebrook, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs. "She's one of us."

Players

Kathleen Ann Merrigan

Title: Administrator, Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Age: 40.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Williams College; master's in public administration, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas; currently finishing a doctorate in environmental planning and policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Family: Married; 1-year-old daughter.

Previous jobs: Agriculture Committee staffer for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), 1987-92; environmental and agricultural consultant, 1992-94; senior analyst, Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, 1994-99.

Hobbies: She likes biking, but these days, with a new job, a new baby and a dissertation to finish, she isn't doing much of it.

CAPTION: Kathleen Ann Merrigan in her USDA office, with a quilt made for her baby.