Agriculture, Department of

views updated May 21 2018


AGRICULTURE, DEPARTMENT OF. In 1796 George Washington recommended creating a national board of agriculture to disseminate information on agricultural practices and award prizes for innovations. This goal was not realized until more than half a century later, but by the early 1820s Congress and most state legislatures had established agricultural committees. Agricultural societies and fairs in the same period attested to the widespread interest in improving farm techniques in a nation still overwhelmingly rural.

The Department of Agriculture originated in a roundabout way through the interest of Patent Office Commissioner Henry L. Ellsworth in farm machinery. In the late 1830s Ellsworth began collecting agricultural information and distributing to farmers seeds gathered overseas by embassy and military personnel. Starting in the 1840s, Patent Office annual reports began to include large sections related to agriculture, and in the 1850s the office initiated a modest research program. When the Civil War erupted, Southern Congressmen—who had questioned the constitutionality of a federal agricultural agency—left Washington. This allowed Congress to create a small Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1862, which was given a broad mandate "to acquire and to diffuse … information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word. …" Shortly after President Abraham Lincoln signed the act on 15 May 1862, he appointed a successful Pennsylvania dairy farmer, Isaac Newton, to be the first commissioner of agriculture.

Soon the Department of Agriculture began hiring scientists and publishing regular statistics about commodity production and prices. Early research focused on improving plant and animal varieties. The passage of the Hatch Experiment Station Act in 1887 set up state agricultural experiment stations in the land-grant colleges that, with the cooperation and leadership of the Department's own investigators, rapidly propelled the United States to the forefront of scientific research in agriculture. In 1889 USDA attained the status of a cabinet department, and farm journalist Norman Jay Colman became the first secretary of agriculture.

Over the next thirty years, USDA steadily acquired new functions as Americans began asking the government to take on new roles. The Meat Inspection Act of 1890 gave USDA the job of inspecting exported meat, a function soon expanded to give the Department an extensive role in insuring the safety of domestic and exported foods. Also in the 1890s, the Department began to study nutrition, promote farm exports, and manage forestlands set aside for timber and recreation. It created two major agencies it later lost to other departments—the Weather Bureau (1890) and the Office of Road Inquiry (1893)—the latter of which evolved into the massive federal road-building program.

In 1914 the Smith-Lever Act set up an extension service to bring agricultural research directly to farmers. Like the experiment stations, extension was an early example of federal cooperation with the states. The 1914 Cotton Futures Act was the first of many laws putting USDA in the business of market regulation, while the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916 launched the Department's first credit program for farmers. USDA also played an important role in increasing food production during World War I.

Following the collapse of wartime farm commodity prices in 1920, agriculture entered a new era in which surplus production would depress farm income and create demands for new forms of assistance. The Department's fledgling economics work was bolstered by the 1922 establishment of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, whose analyses were designed to help farmers make better management decisions. The Capper Volstead Act of 1922 encouraged farmers to form cooperatives that would give them more control of supply purchases and marketing. The main interest, however, was in finding a way to restore farm prices to their previous levels. Bills setting up innovative farm programs were vetoed in the 1920s, but the onset of a general depression after 1929 made the government more willing to act.

The New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt and secretary of agriculture Henry A. Wallace transformed USDA into its modern form with a sweeping string of initiatives that greatly enlarged the scope of government action. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 attacked the surplus problem through both price supports and acreage reductions. While farm programs have been much modified since then, most of the subsequent tools for price support and adjustment were first used under the 1933 act. Soil conservation, which aimed to stop erosion on farmland, complemented the government's effort to remove marginal land from cultivation. Excess farm commodities were also reduced through school lunch and food stamp programs. The Department gave special attention to poor farmers through credit, education, tenant, and resettlement programs. It also made a substantial commitment to bringing the quality of rural life closer to urban standards through electrification and farm-to-market roads. Most of these new functions brought new agencies with them, and by 1940 USDA's employment had reached a peak of close to 100,000. Overall, USDA programs helped mitigate the worst effects of the Depression.

With the advent of World War II, farm surpluses became an advantage rather than a liability. USDA quickly shifted gears to encourage maximum production and to get all citizens involved in growing gardens and saving essential products like fats. Price controls and rationing, while not under USDA administration, kept food affordable while permitting as much as possible to be diverted to military use.

The postwar era began a period of rapid change for agriculture. Years of research came to fruition in an unprecedented technological revolution that resulted in the most rapid productivity increases in agricultural history. New farm machinery, better seeds, new animal breeds, and the rapid adoption of new chemical fertilizers and pesticides modernized agriculture. Farms became larger, more specialized, and more highly capitalized. Undercapitalized producers who could not compete left their farms, often for big cities. This created problems for rural areas losing population. In the mid-1950s USDA began planning rural development programs to find nonagricultural solutions to rural economic problems. Meanwhile, the productivity revolution had brought a return of surplus production and sent many commodity prices down to their minimum support levels. New conservation programs took some land out of cultivation.

Orville L. Freeman, secretary under President Kennedy, set about expanding USDA's non-farm programs. Seeking to turn surplus production to an advantage, he obtained greatly enlarged food stamp, food distribution, school lunch, and rural development programs to combat poverty and did much to increase donations to poor countries overseas, which had become significant under the Food for Peace (PL 480) program of 1954. The Department also began its first serious efforts to desegregate under Freeman and began to regulate pesticides more stringently because of environmental concerns about their effects on wildlife and human health.

The 1970s were a time of expanding farm exports and strong prices. At the same time, food programs grew to become over half the Department's budget. When exports tumbled in the early 1980s, many farmers were plunged into financial crisis. Congress responded with the Food Security Act (1985), which strengthened export promotion and conservation programs and gave farmers more flexibility to respond to market conditions. These trends continued with new legislation in 1990 and 1996. Free trade agreements in 1993 (North American Free Trade Agreement) and 1994 (Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) put American agriculture more than ever in a global context.

USDA went through a substantial reorganization beginning in 1994 that reduced the number of agencies and consolidated most farm programs. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, USDA remains one of the largest federal agencies. While still putting agriculture first, it serves all Americans through a wide range of programs covering food safety, nutrition, food subsidies, rural development, and forestry.


Baker, Gladys L., et al. Century of Service: The First 100 Years of the United States Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1963.

Gaus, John M. Public Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture. Chicago: Public Administration Service, 1940.

Kerr, Norwood A. The Legacy: A Centennial History of the State Agricultural Experiment Stations, 1887–1987. Columbia: Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Missouri, 1987.

Rasmussen, Wayne D. "90 Years of Rural Development Programs." Rural Development Perspectives 2, no. 1 (October 1985): 2–9.

Douglas E.Bowers

See alsoAgricultural Price Support ; Agriculture ; Hatch Act ; Meat Inspection Laws ; Smith-Lever Act .

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

views updated May 29 2018


The particular contribution of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to public health rests, for the most part, in its spawning of the great U.S. regulatory agencies: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS); the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Of these, APHIS and FSIS remain within the USDA, while the EPA became an independent agency in 1971 and the FDA became an independent agency in 1941 and then later became part of the Department of Health Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services).

APHIS regulates plant and animal diseases mainly in order to protect economic interests. Some of the animal diseases, however, are transmissible to humans, including brucellosis (undulant fever) and tuberculosis. APHIS also is charged with keeping exotic animal diseases such as foot and mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) out of the United States. Epidemics of both these diseases among animals in several European countries during 2000 and 2001 have caused considerable fear of meat products as well as economic damage from extensive killing of animals to control the epidemics. Thus far during these outbreaks, however, no cases of either disease have been reported in the United States. Success in this area has marked APHIS as one of the most effective agencies of its kind in the world.

FSIS is charged with the inspection of meat, poultry, and eggs. A particularly large agency of more than 9,000 employees, FSIS is required by law to continuously inspect food animals during slaughter. This requirement is somewhat dated and is based on the dubious presumption that visual inspection is effective.

In order to modernize meat and poultry inspection, FSIS published a regulation in 1996 which has enabled the agency to employ the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System (HACCP) as an added and improved safeguard. HACCP is a systems approach to food control that emphasizes prevention. First developed for the space program, HACCP is generally recognized as the most advanced system for ensuring safe food. Integral to the system is the identification of hazards that could contaminate the food and a comprehensive set of verification steps and audits that ensure the system has been effective. First adapted to a regulatory framework by the U.S. government, HACCP is now the standard of food inspection throughout the world. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has evaluated HACCP and concluded that it is, in fact, reducing food-borne disease from meat and poultry sources.

Egg inspection primarily consists of publishing standards for storage and temperature coupled with delegated collaboration with state and local officials. Egg safety concerns have been heightened by the advent of Salmonella enteritidis in the early 1980s. This organism found a new niche in the oviduct of laying chickens. While causing no disease to the bird, by seeding itself in the egg yolk it became a leading cause of salmonellosis in humans. Control programs center on eliminating the disease from breeder and laying flocks, as well as with consumer education programs designed to encourage adequate cooking of eggs. These interdiction programs have materially reduced human infection associated with the organism.

FSIS also operates two so-called "zero tolerance" programsfor Listeria monocytogenes and for Escherichia coli 0157: H7. Zero tolerance means that the presence of the organism at any level in a sample of ready-to-eat food is grounds for recall of the food from the marketplace. The largest food recalls in American history have resulted from this policy over the past two years. The L. monocytogenes program was initiated in 1988; a 1994 evaluation by CDC credited the program with a 25 percent reduction in human Listeriosis. The hemorrhagic E. coli program was implemented in 1994; human enterohemorrhagic E. coli has not particularly declined, but it also has not increased since the inception of the program in the midst of an annually progressing incidence.

FSIS has overseen a dramatic reduction in chemical contaminants of the meat and poultry supply. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, 10 percent or more of these foods were contaminated with anabolic steroids, antibiotics, pesticides, or heavy metals. Today, the levels of violative residues are below 1 percent and, in most meat commodities, levels are approaching zero. Violative levels are hazardous concentrations in foods. These accomplishments are due to a risk-based sampling program followed by sanctions against violators, due in part to a productive synergy with FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). CVM has banned or severely restricted a number of persistent agricultural chemicals such as diethylstilbesterol, sulfamethazine, and dimetridazole. CVM has acted on information developed with FSIS to both educate and prosecute farmers and veterinarians who do not use animal drugs correctly.

Lester M. Crawford


Brown, M., ed. (2000). HACCP in the Meat Industry. Cambridge, UK: Woodhead Publishing Ltd.

Crawford, L. M., and Franco, D. A. (1993). Animal Drugs and Human Health. Basel: Technomics Press.


views updated May 18 2018

USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) The department of the United States federal government that exists to serve the needs of those engaged in agriculture and rural communities. It comprises a number of agencies, each with its own functions, one of which is the US Soil Survey. In 1960, the USDA published Soil Classification; A Comprehensive System, prepared by the Soil Survey. This method of classifying soils hierarchically was renamed the US Soil Taxonomy in 1970, was subsequently adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and is now the most widely used taxonomic system. See soil taxonomy.


views updated May 08 2018

USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) The department of the United States federal government that exists to serve the needs of those engaged in agriculture and rural communities. It comprises a number of agencies, each with its own functions, one of which is the US Soil Survey. In 1960, the USDA published Soil Classification: A Comprehensive System, prepared by the Soil Survey. This method of classifying soils hierarchically was renamed the US Soil Taxonomy in 1970, was subsequently adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and is now the most widely used taxonomic system. See SOIL TAXONOMY.

United States Department of Agriculture

views updated May 08 2018

United States Department of Agriculture See USDA.

United States Department of Agriculture

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United States Department of Agriculture See USDA.


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USDA United States Department of Agriculture.


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USDA United States Department of Agriculture


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USDA US Department of Agriculture, created as an independent department in 1862; web site

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