|United States Department of Agriculture|
|Seal of the Department of Agriculture|
|Logo of the USDA|
|Formed||May 15, 1862
(Cabinet status February 15, 1889)
|Preceding agency||Agricultural Division|
|Jurisdiction||Federal government of the United States|
|Headquarters||1301 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C.
|Employees||105,778 (June 2007)|
|Annual budget||US$95 billion (2009)|
|Agency executives||Thomas J. Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture
Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture
|Child agency||Click here|
The United States Department of Agriculture (informally the Agriculture Department or USDA) is the United States federal executive department responsible for developing and executing U.S. federal government policy on farming, agriculture, and food. It aims to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers, promote agricultural trade and production, work to assure food safety, protect natural resources, foster rural communities and end hunger in the United States and abroad.
Early in its history, the economy of the United States was largely agrarian. Officials in the federal government had long sought new and improved varieties of seeds, plants, and animals for importation to the United States. In 1836 Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, a Yale-educated attorney interested in improving agriculture, became Commissioner of Patents, a position within the Department of State. He soon began collecting and distributing new varieties of seeds and plants through members of the Congress and agricultural societies. In 1839, Congress established the Agricultural Division within the Patent Office and allotted $1,000 for "the collection of agricultural statistics and other agricultural purposes."
Ellsworth's interest in aiding agriculture was evident in his annual reports that called for a public depository to preserve and distribute the various new seeds and plants, a clerk to collect agricultural statistics, the preparation of statewide reports about crops in different regions, and the application of chemistry to agriculture. Ellsworth's agricultural focus earned him the sobriquet of "The Father of the Department of Agriculture."
In 1849 the Patent Office was transferred to the newly created Department of the Interior. In the ensuing years, agitation for a separate bureau of agriculture within the department or a separate department devoted to agriculture kept recurring. The USDA was created by Abraham Lincoln in order to help out the United States economy.
On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln established the independent Department of Agriculture to be headed by a Commissioner without Cabinet status. Lincoln called it the "people's department." In the 1880s, varied advocacy groups were lobbying for Cabinet representation. Business interests sought a Department of Commerce and Industry, and farmers tried to raise the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet rank. In 1887, the House of Representatives and Senate passed bills giving Cabinet status to the Department of Agriculture and Labor, but the bill was killed in conference committee after farm interests objected to the addition of labor. Finally, on February 9, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law elevating the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet level.
In 1887, the Hatch Act provided for the federal funding of agricultural experiment stations in each state. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 then funded cooperative extension services in each state to teach agriculture, home economics and related subjects to the public. With these and similar provisions, the USDA reached out to every county of every state.
During the Great Depression, farming remained a common way of life for millions of Americans. The Department of Agriculture was crucial to providing concerned persons with the assistance that they needed to make it through this difficult period, helping to ensure that food continued to be produced and distributed to those who needed it, assisting with loans for small landowners, and contributing to the education of the rural youth.
Allegations have been made that throughout the agency's history it discriminated against African-American farmers, denying them loans and access to other programs well into the 1990s. The effect of this discrimination was the near total elimination of African-American farmers in the United States. In 1999, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit (Pigford v. Glickman) alleging discrimination against African-American farmers.
Today, many of the programs concerned with the distribution of food and nutrition to people of America and providing nourishment as well as nutrition education to those in need are run and operated under the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. It also regulates the amount of methane produced by cows. The USDA also concerns itself with assisting farmers and food producers with the sale of crops and food on both a domestic and on the world market. It plays a role in overseas aid programs by providing surplus foods to developing countries. This aid can go through USAID, foreign governments, international bodies such as World Food Program, or approved non profit organizations. The Agricultural Act of 1949, section 416 (b) and Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, also known as Public Law 480 or Food for Peace, provides the legal basis of such actions.
Important legislation setting policy of the USDA includes the: