U.S. Department of Agriculture

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U.S. Department of Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had its origin in the U.S. Patent Office, one of the first federal offices. In 1837, an employee of the Patent Office, Henry L. Ellsworth, began to distribute seeds to American farmers that he had received from overseas. By 1840, Ellsworth had obtained a grant of $1,000 from Congress to establish an Agricultural Division within the Patent Office. This division was charged with collecting statistics on agriculture in the United States and carrying out research, as well as distributing seeds.

Over the next two decades, the Agricultural Division continued to expand within the Patent Office, until Congress created the Department of Agriculture on May 15, 1862. The officer in charge of the department was initially called the Commissioner of Agriculture, but the Department was raised to cabinet level on February 9, 1889, and the Commissioner was renamed the Secretary of Agriculture.

The USDA today is a mammoth executive agency that manages dozens of programs. Its overall goals include the improvement and maintenance of farm incomes and the development of overseas markets for domestic agricultural products. The department is also committed to reducing poverty, hunger, and malnutrition; protecting soil , water, forests, and other natural resources ; and maintaining standards of quality for agricultural products. The activities of the USDA are subdivided into seven major categories: Small Community and Rural Development, Marketing and Inspection Services, Food and Consumer Services, International Affairs and Commodity Programs, Science and Education, Natural Resources and Environment , and Economics.

Small Community and Rural Development oversees many of the programs which provide financial assistance to rural citizens. It administers emergency loans as well as loans for youth projects, farm ownership, rural housing, watershed protection, and flood prevention. It also underwrites federal crop insurance, and the Rural Electrification Administration is part of this division.

Marketing and Inspection Services is responsible for all activities relating to the inspection and maintenance of health standards for all foods produced in the United States. The Agricultural Cooperative Service, which many consider one of the USDA's most important functions, is part of the division. Food and Consumer Services helps educate consumers about good nutritional practices and provides the means by which people can act on that information. The division administers the Food Stamp program, as well as the School Breakfast, Summer Food Service, Child Care Food, and Human Nutrition Information programs.

The main functions of the International Affairs and Commodity Programs are to promote the sale and distribution of American farm products abroad and to maintain crop yields and farm income at home. The Science and Education division consists of a number of research and educational agencies including the Agricultural Research Service , the Extension Service, and the National Agricultural Library.

Some of the USDA's best known services are located within the Natural Resources and Environment Division. The Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service are the two largest of these. The Economics Division is responsible for collecting, collating, and distributing statistical and other economic data on national agriculture. The Economic Research Service, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Office of Energy, and World Agricultural Outlook Board are all part of this division.

[Lawrence H. Smith ]



The United States Government Manual, 1992/93. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.


U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. USA 20250 Email: [email protected], <http://www.usda.gov>

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U.S. Department of Agriculture