The U.S. Department of Agriculture, also called the Agriculture Department, or USDA, is a Cabinet department of the United States Federal Government. Its purpose is to develop and execute policy on farming, agriculture, and food. It aims to meet the needs of farmers and rancher, promote agricultural trade and production, work to assure food safety, protect natural resources, foster rural communities, and end hunger in America and abroad.
The United States had a largely agrarian economy early in its history. Officials in the federal government had long sought new and improved varieties of seeds, plants, and animals for importation to the United States. In 1836 Henry L. Ellsworth, a man interested in improving agriculture, became Commissioner of Patents, a position within the Department of State. He soon began collecting and distributing new varieties of seeds and plants through members of the Congress and agricultural societies. In 1839 Congress established the Agricultural Division within the Patent Office and allotted $1,000 for "the collection of agricultural statistics and other agricultural purposes."
Ellsworth's interest in aiding agriculture was evident in his annual reports that called for a public depository to preserve and distribute the various new seeds and plants, a clerk to collect agricultural statistics, the preparation of statewide reports about crops in different regions, and the application of chemistry to agriculture. In 1849 the Patent Office was transferred to the newly created Department of the Interior. In the ensuing years, agitation for a separate bureau of agriculture within the Department or a separate department devoted to agriculture kept recurring.
USDA building (photo taken in 1934)
On May 15, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln established the independent Bureau of Agriculture to be headed by a Commissioner without cabinet status. Lincoln called it the "people's department." At the time, 48 percent of the U.S. population were farmers.
In the 1880s, varied special interest groups were lobbying for Cabinet representation. Business interests sought a Department of Commerce and Industry. Farmers tried to raise the Bureau of Agriculture to Cabinet rank. In 1887, the House and Senate passed bills creating a Department of Agriculture and Labor, but farm interests objected to the inclusion of labor, and the bill was killed in conference. Finally, on February 9, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law establishing the Cabinet level Department of Agriculture.
The USDA is administered by the United States Secretary of Agriculture.
Important legislation setting policy of the USDA includes the: