Happy 150th birthday, USDA!


There was a big birthday bash last week. If you missed it, don’t worry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be celebrating all year.

The USDA was established May 15, 1862 — 150 years ago — by President Abraham Lincoln, who grew up on farms in Kentucky, Indiana and then Illinois.

It started as a federal department headed by a commissioner, and in 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill elevating the Department of Agriculture to cabinet level. In his Dec. 1, 1862, report to Congress, Lincoln said, “The creation of this Department was for the more immediate benefit of a large class of our most valuable citizens, and I trust … that it will realize at no distant day all the fondest anticipations of its most sanguine friends and become the fruitful source of advantage to all our people.”

And in his final annual message to the Congress, Lincoln called USDA “the People’s Department.” Its first commissioner, Isaac Newton, called a “superior agriculture — whether in hilly countries, table-lands, or alluvial plains — the great and essential art of life,” and wrote in his first report to the president, “When agriculture prospers, all other interests prosper.”

Today, farmers number less than 2 percent of all Americans, and the gap between farmers and nonfarmers is wide, but I believe the words of Lincoln and Newton have stood their test.

U.S. agriculture, aided by the departments within USDA, is an international envy. And U.S. agriculture benefits all Americans, not only by the food and fiber it produces, but by its conservation of natural resources, by its management of forests and woodlots, by its economic stimulus.

The USDA arms embrace much more than production agriculture. It The U.S. Forest Service, for example, is a branch of the USDA. The USDA also helped bring electric power to rural regions, and continues to bolster rural development with funding for housing, utilities, water resources and energy.

In his state of the union address in 2011, President Barack Obama said, “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”

The USDA has been working to do that for 150 years, and I think its role has been grossly underestimated. I don’t think we can out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build without talking agriculture.

The current U.S. secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, keeps a Lincoln quote on his desk: “The struggle of today is not altogether for today. It is also for a vast future tomorrow.”

Agriculture is the foundation of economies, societies and countries. Without it, nation’s crumble. I think it’s noteworthy that the U.S. Senate resolution commemorating the USDA sesquicentennial, after congratulating the men and women of the department of agriculture, ends this way: “[Resolved, that the Senate]… honors the farmers and ranchers of the United States, whose ingenuity, adaptability, and skill have created the safest and most abundant food supply in the history of mankind.”

That would be you — the “people” of the “People’s Department.” You deserve some birthday cake, too.

By Susan Crowell


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