By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president
This week marks a milestone in the history of our country and a legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. While he is known for many accomplishments, a little-known fact is that he established the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 150 years ago.
On May 15, 1862, Lincoln signed into law a bill establishing a new department of agriculture, which was specifically directed to acquire information through “practical and scientific experiments” and to collect and propagate “new and valuable seeds and plants” and distribute these to the nation‘s agriculturists. This was the first in a series of acts of Congress that set American agriculture on a progressive course.
Five days later, Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, granting land to people who would settle on frontier land and improve it. On July 2, 1862, the president signed the Morrill Act, which granted huge tracts of land to the states to endow colleges dedicated to teaching “such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts … to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes … ” This was the beginning of today’s vast and flourishing land grant university system. In later years, agricultural experiment stations were created to "conduct original and other research, investigations and experiments” in support of “a permanent and effective agricultural industry. ” Extension services were set up to share knowledge with farmers.
Agriculture has been a major part of our economy the last 150 years and is poised to continue that role in the future. As we look at current conditions, there is no denying that there has been a shift in the global climate.
President Lincoln would have recognized the science about climate change, and likely would have asked two important questions: How do we mitigate the effects and how do we adapt to them at the same time? The answers lie in good stewardship of our natural resources. In creating USDA, President Lincoln knew that agriculture provided for a stable and secure society—hence the moniker “The People’s Department.”
In addition to producing an abundance of goods, agriculture also provides services that are environmentally beneficial. Agricultural practices that conserve soil, protect water quality and quantity, and provide wildlife habitat can both address the causes and consequences of problems like climate change. Conservation tillage, buffer strips, grazing management and sustainable forestry all help to reduce and sequester greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Those same practices help agriculture mitigate effects of climate change such as extreme flooding and drought by building healthy soil structure, cleansing and conserving water and reducing economic risk.
The benefits of natural resource conservation are fundamental to both agricultural production and to environmental improvement. In helping farmers and ranchers be good stewards of the land, USDA sustains President Lincoln’s vision today by “commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance.”
Agriculture will also continue to play a valuable role in mitigating the effects of climate change by expanding the development of renewable energy. America’s farms and ranches are rich in natural resources that can produce renewable fuel for the transportation sector, and heat and power for America’s industrial, commercial and residential sectors. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass and biofuels have the potential to offset a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for traditional fossil fuels.
America’s farmers, ranchers and research scientists can again lead the way to a 21st century Green Revolution if we follow the vision of Abraham Lincoln as laid out in 1862 by establishing the USDA. So as we celebrate this week, we should reflect on all that the Department of Agriculture has helped us achieve and all that in can help us achieve going forward. Happy 150th birthday to USDA!
Roger Johnson is the 14th President of the National Farmers Union. Prior to his post at NFU, Johnson held the position of Agriculture Commissioner in North Dakota for 12 years and his family farms in Turtle Lake, N.D.
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