Today’s transportation and communication systems were totally unimaginable when the Wright brothers traveled to Kitty Hawk or Alexander Bell invented the telephone.  The same can be said for agriculture.

Americans were 90% farmers during the Revolution and over 50% farmers when President Lincoln established the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), signed the Homestead Act and created the land-grant college system.  Before USDA, the federal officials who sought new and improved seeds worked with the Commissioner of Patents, Henry Ellsworth, within the Department of State; in 1839 Congress established the Agriculture Division within a new Patent Office.  USDA became a Cabinet level Department in 1889.

As readers of this column know, only one percent (1%) of the American people currently farm, freeing the other 99% of us to pursue the careers of our choice.  American farmers are so efficient that we spend only 6.5% of our disposable income on food at home which stimulates other sectors of the economy.  And not only do the 1% who farm feed the country, but one in three farm acres is planted for export and 30% of U.S. farm income comes from exports. 

These numbers could lead to the thought that USDA is no longer relevant to America, it has outlived its usefulness, and USDA should now be merged with the Department of the Interior or perhaps moved back to the Department of State where it started.  In reality, however, the opposite is true. The mission of the modern Department of Agriculture (USDA) has grown and its programs reach every American every day…as Secretary Tom Vilsack likes to say. The USDA 2014-2018 Strategic Plan established a Vision Statement as follows:  

“To expand economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production sustainability that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve and conserve our Nation’s natural resources through restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.”

In short, while America is no longer the agrarian society envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, USDA remains important to all Americans and has become the single most important agricultural institution in the world.  USDA farm programs such as crop insurance, trade promotion, rural development, research, and conservation are indispensable to American farmers and ranchers, providing America with a global competitive advantage in food production.

USDA’s Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services mission area helps to keep America's farmers and ranchers in business and profitable as they face the uncertainties of weather and markets. They deliver commodity, credit, conservation, disaster, and emergency assistance programs that help improve the stability and strength of the agricultural economy.

But supporting farmers is only the starting point for today’s modern Department of Agriculture.  USDA’s role has evolved as our economy has diversified.  The Research, Education and Economics program applies integrated research, analysis, and education to achieve the goals of a safe, sustainable, and competitive U.S. food system. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) makes possible scientific discoveries to improve crop and livestock production and the interaction of agriculture and the environment. Its research is then distributed through the extension service to American farmers and shared worldwide.   Our public institutions lead the world in agriculture research.

In order to support the food and agriculture economy USDA works to assist rural America more generally. The USDA Rural Development mission area is committed to improving the economy and quality of life in rural America by providing financial support to essential public facilities such as water and sewer systems, housing, health clinics, emergency service facilities and electric and communication services.

To remain productive, we also must protect our natural resources.  The agencies under USDA’s Natural Resources and Environment mission area ensures the health of the land through sustainable management, working to prevent damage to natural resources and the environment, restore the resource base, and promote good land management. Forest management is critical to providing clean water, clean air, habitat and also mitigating forest fires. 

Goal #3 of the USDA strategic plan is to “Help America promote agricultural production and biotechnology exports as America works to increase food security.” The Marketing and Regulatory Programs (MRP) facilitate domestic and international marketing of U.S. agricultural products and ensure the health and care of animals and plants. MRP agencies are active participants in setting national and international standard, and their scientists are held in high regard all over the world.  It is the Agriculture Marketing Service that regulates the National Organic Program.  

Agriculture is a central element in the pending multilateral trade agreements, reflecting the importance of US agricultural exports. The US, for example, exports over 50% of its wheat crop.  As noted above, exports are critical to both maximizing net farm income at home and feeding the world.  The US also works to synchronize agriculture regulations on a bilateral basis, as we did in recent meetings with China.  USDA has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a non-profit organization, to help transfer our research and extension expertise to Africa as they start their unique green revolution based on smallholder farming.  

USDA protects the safety of our food supply in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration.  The USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services administer a number of programs to end hunger and improve health in the United States.  We have always been a very generous nation in sharing our agricultural bounty with those who are hungry.  In conjunction with the Agency for International Development, USDA supports the McGovern-Dole International School Food Program which takes our grain and delivers it to schools around the world attracting children to school and changing their lives. 

USDA has established an Office of Civil Rights and, as a part of the last farm bill, an Office of Tribal Relations.  While the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages the trust responsibility of the US Government for Indian Reservations, it is USDA that has the best opportunity to drive down the unemployment rate on the Indian Reservations.  The Tribes with the highest unemployment rates are the farming Tribes of the Missouri River Valley, those furthest from population centers where gaming can make a difference.  The unemployment rate on farming Reservations can reach 70%, 80% and even 90%.  (Yes, the highest unemployment rates in the United States.)

So, while the Department of Agriculture is about farming first and foremost it is also about food safety, rural development, protecting natural resources, nutrition and also national security.  Allow me to close this article with the statement of Chairman Michael Conaway as he closed a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee:

“Members of the Agriculture Committee understand the role U.S. agriculture plays in maintaining a strong U.S. economy and stability around the world. With fewer and fewer Americans connected to production agriculture, many in Congress fail to recognize the importance of sound farm policy to our national security….
“The bottom line is that a nation that can feed and provide for itself is inherently safer than a nation that cannot. The United States is blessed with an abundant and safe food supply thanks to more than 2 million farmers and ranchers who dutifully tend to their fields and pastures. Many countries around the globe periodically, or constantly, face the threat of food instability that leads to hunger and starvation. By surveying these global issues, as well as domestic threats like pests, disease, and economic threats, it’s easy to see the interconnectedness of a stable food supply and national security…”


Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, specializes in agriculture and food security at OFW Law.