The United States Department of Agriculture marked its 150th year of existence on Tuesday. Created by President Lincoln an May 15, 1862, the agency has grown to become one of the largest and most far reaching departments of the federal government. USDA has a presence in almost every county in the nation, plus offices in about every nation on earth. It serves breakfast and lunch to 32 million school children every day, and 1 in 7 Americans receives food assistance from USDA. Yet, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Villsack pointed out during a celebration in Washington, at its core, USDA is still there to serve farmers, “The USDA annually provides credit to get people into the farming business and works to create markets both domestically and internationally to make sure farm families have a source of income.” Vilsack says the productivity of American agriculture, fostered in part by USDA, has given the US food security.
The original purpose of USDA was to foster research to increase food production. Vilsack said the agency has been very successful at accomplishing that mission, “In my lifetime, corn production has increased 300% and soybean production 200%.” He said this kind of productivity has not only allowed American agriculture to feed the world but has now created a new bio-based economy.
American Farm Bureau Deputy Executive Director of Public Policy and former USDA senior staff member, Dale Moore, says this new bio-based sector represents the mission of USDA for the next 150 years, “It’s not just about the gasoline or the fuel that we put in our cars and trucks. It’s also about wind energy. It’s about biomass conversion, so that we’re making full utilization of the various crops and commodities that we’re raising to improve the economy.”
Praise for the Department poured in from all sectors of agriculture. National Corn Growers Association President Garry Niemeyer, “We have evolved from a time when corn planting used mule-drawn plows to an era of technically sophisticated tractors, multi-row planters, and GPS systems. Over the past 150 years, the USDA has helped advance American agriculture, spur economic growth, conserve natural resources, and build stronger communities.” Steve Wellman, President of the American Soybean Association, said, “USDA has worked alongside soybean farmers for decades in the best interest of agriculture, developing international markets , fostering rural development, encouraging conservation, alleviating hunger, improving nutrition, and enhancing food safety.”
Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, used the occasion of the USDA anniversary to call on Senate leadership to bring a new Farm Bill to the Senate floor, “It is critical that we pass the Farm Bill before the current bill expires in September. We passed a very strong bill out of Committee, with real reforms that cut the deficit by $23 billion – and we did it in a bipartisan way.”
Villsack noted that one of the challenges his agency faces in the next 150 years is bringing a new generation of farmers onto the land. During his remarks, he urged Congress to make changes in the tax laws to make it easier for farms to be transferred to the next generation.
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