More than a Birthday - Can You Say Sescquicentennial?

Farmer Iron

USDA hits 150 today, exactly, but what does that mean? And whither the future?

Published on: May 15, 2012

During a speech by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack he commented that while things look bad today he looks back on the way things were 150 years ago. That's when President Abraham Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture, every farmer's USDA friend. While Congress is bickering over spending, and pretty much everything else these days, Lincoln and that forward thinking Congress created this new department.

And it thrives today, more "nutrition program" than "agriculture program" this Cabinet-level office has been held by a range of folks from a range of backgrounds. But each has treated the position for the important place it is. But 150 years ago in the midst of a war that would decide if there would even be a United States, the new USDA was made.

You have to recall that back then agriculture was pretty much a hands-on kind of job. Hands on the plow, hands on the reins, hands and feet in the furrow. Today that same department serves an industry - and frankly there's nothing wrong with the words industry or factory - that adopts new technology faster than any other segment of business. Even those farmers using organic methods are constantly seeking new ways to do the job more efficiently and effectively.

But here's the irony. If someone from 1762 had been picked up and dropped into 1862 he could still have farmed, the tech hadn't changed much. Pick up that 1862 individual and bring him to this week's USDA birthday party and frankly he'd have to go sell shoes. No way a farmer from that far back could even understand what he or she was seeing.

From hybrid corn (yes the first advanced use of genetics) to high-end machinery, that farmer of the past would be lost. Yet USDA has thrived and changed with this fast-moving business. Over time its mission has evolved from agriculture to food, adding in nutrition programs like food stamps (and now called SNAP) has changed some of the focus of the department. But at the end of the day, USDA helps farmers do their jobs with risk management, subsidized crop insurance and even direct payments.

This is a business that with the stroke of a drought or a bug infestation can turn a promising spring into a devastated fall; which is why farmers (even 'rich' farmers) need government supported risk management managed and run by your local Farm Service Agency.

This column usually focuses on iron and how it's deployed in agriculture. USDA, through extension-supported research has helped farmers improve every aspect of their businesses. The landscape has changed dramatically from the days when the agency started, but the need for support on all levels remains if we plan to keep feeding everyone.

The Agency has worked to adopt and change itself to meet this changing need. The challenge ahead is daunting, but with cost-reductions underway and balanced hand on key regulatory issues, USDA will keep supporting its No. 1 customer - you, the farmer.

Happy Birthday USDA, may you live long and prosper.