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USDA Celebrates 150 Years of Helping People

posted on January 3, 2013

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In May of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act of Congress establishing the United States Department of Agriculture.

Lincoln recognized the potential of America’s farmers to find new ways to cultivate the land with advances in research and technology, allowing them to provide a safe, abundant food supply for America. 

And in what would be his final annual message to Congress; Lincoln dubbed USDA, "The People's Department."

2012 marks the Agriculture Department's sesquicentennial.  And as John Nichols explains, despite numerous challenges over the past 150 years, USDA continues to fulfill the vision of its founder. 

One year into the Civil War, additional Union troops were rushed to Washington D.C. to protect the nation's capitol from rapidly advancing Confederate forces.   

 With his back against the wall, President Abraham Lincoln struggled to unite a bitterly divided nation.    

A peculiar time, it would seem, for the President to focus on agriculture.  Yet, that's exactly what Lincoln did, signing legislation in May of 1862 creating what he later called "the People's Department." 

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: "I think if Abraham Lincoln came back and saw what he began, he would be extraordinarily proud. I’m not sure he would recognize his USDA. We started out 150 years ago with a very narrow responsibility. That was the function. Today we do so much more."   

When the Agriculture Department was created in 1862, the United States population was estimated at 31 million people.  Nearly half of all Americans lived on farms and about 90 percent were connected -- directly or indirectly -- to agriculture. 

One hundred fifty years later, the population has increased more than ten-fold.  Less than 2 percent of us live on farms, yet Americans enjoy access to abundant and affordable food; and USDA continues to fulfill Lincoln's vision of touching the lives of every American, every day.

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "The most important thing about USDA from my perspective is its reach.  It really does affect every single American every single day and it also impacts millions of people all around the world." 

At no time in its history did the USDA play a more crucial role in sustaining the nation than during the Great Depression. 

In the wake of a stock market crash that vaporized an estimated $30 billion in equity, wages declined and unemployment soared.  Between 1929 and 1932, the average worker's income fell by 40 percent, sparking a firestorm of home foreclosures.  By 1934, over 1 million families had lost their farms.

Those remaining on the land endured severe drought that persisted for years, yet commodity prices plummeted.    

On the Southern Plains, clouds of dust darkened the skies for weeks in a phenomenon that came to be known as The Dustbowl.  USDA worked with growers to minimize soil erosion.  And the conservation programs that conquered the Dustbowl, have played a key role in American agriculture ever since. 

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "I am proud to say in this administration we have a record number of acres engaged in a role in conservation practices of one kind or another.  All of it is designed to avoid soil erosion. So we're - we're looking at about 29 million acres. 1.8 billion dollars of money goes into the pockets of farmers because of that program and it allows us to prevent the kinds of circumstances we say during the Depression.”

In addition to environmental challenges, America's farmers also faced severe economic hardships during the Depression. 

USDA established marketing programs and price supports designed to stabilize the agricultural economy.   But rural citizens still lacked a vital piece of infrastructure that was powering a renaissance in urban America -- Electricity.  In the 1930’s only about 10 percent of rural homes were wired for electrical power, compared to 90 percent coverage in urban areas.  USDA's Rural Electrification Administration, or REA, tackled the problem in 1935.  Seven years later, nearly 50 percent of U.S. farms were energized, and by 1952 electricity was available to virtually every operation in the country. 

Urban citizens, of course, also suffered during the Depression. And as the worst economic downturn in history intensified, 2 million Americans were homeless and hungry.

The Agriculture Department assisted the needy by distributing surplus food.  To better nourish impoverished children, USDA established what would become the National School Lunch Program

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, also traces its roots to the Depression. 

All told, the Agriculture Department administers more than a dozen domestic nutrition programs.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates the vast majority of USDA spending over the next decade -- more than 80 percent -- will be for nutrition programs, while direct spending for agriculture is expected to account for less than 20 percent.  But Vilsack stresses the symbiotic relationship of the both campaigns. 

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA:  "14 to 16 cents depending on the study that you look at of every dollar that is spent in a grocery store ends up in a farmer's pocket. And so when people are suggesting huge cuts in the nutrition programs as a way of dealing with our fiscal challenges, farmers need to understand that that is going to take money out of their pockets."

Other USDA agencies manage America's National Forests, enforce food safety regulations and support the development of homegrown energy. 

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "In the last three years we have doubled the amount of renewable energy generation in this country. And so the president has been very clear about this; this is the future and so a production tax credit will make sure that we continue to see a wind energy industry in the Midwest and across the country.  We will continue to support solar.  We will continue to support geothermal.  We will continue to support biofuel production.  Why?  Because it gives us more options.  It diversifies our energy portfolio, it makes us more secure, it creates jobs, and it creates wealth and income for farmers.”     

Perhaps USDA's most crucial program for producers is the safety net designed to better insulate farmers and ranchers from losses due to weather, market downturns or other unexpected issues. 

And by continuing its work in agricultural research, The People's Department also fulfills the vision of its founder, Abraham Lincoln. 

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "We are still in the research business because ag productivity is key to everything else we do but I think he would be impressed that we now have record exports... American agricultural products going all over the world.  I think he would be amazed how few people in this country produce as much food as they produce.  We are food secure as a nation, in large part, because of the productivity of American farmers and ranchers and producers. It is a great department.  I have been extraordinarily privileged and honored to be part of it and I think Abe would be pretty pleased with what we are doing."

For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols. 

Tags: Abraham Lincoln agriculture alternative energy Barack Obama biofuels civil wars conservation depression Dust Bowl Energy Policy Act food production history news nutrition SNAP Stock Market Crash Tom Vilsack USDA wind wind energy