USDA’s 150-year impact

This year USDA is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The department was established May 15, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a law creating what he called “The People’s Department.” Even in the midst of a civil war, Lincoln recognized the important role America’s farmers and ranchers play in providing a safe, ample food supply for this nation and the world.

The accomplishments in agriculture during the past 150 years are mind-boggling. Corn yields have gone from topping out at less than 40 bushels an acre to now averaging more than 160 bushels per acre. The world’s population has grown from 1 billion to 7 billion. Scientific discoveries have eliminated diseases and created never-imagined possibilities.

All of this happened while the percentage of Americans directly involved in farming shrank from more than 50% to less than 2%. Still, today the USDA’s 18 agencies and various offices are staying true to President Lincoln’s vision of serving the people every day. In agriculture-rich states like Iowa, this is readily evident.

Key Points

USDA is celebrating its 150th birthday and is still serving America in many ways.

In 1862, President Abe Lincoln signed the law creating “The People’s Department.”

Scope of accomplishments in agriculture during past 150 years is mind-boggling.


USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, is one of the oldest agencies within the department. In fact, information about Iowa crop acreage and conditions was included in the first crop report published in 1863 — one year after USDA was established.

Three years later corn production estimates were completed for the first time, and Iowa ranked fourth among all states. Today, Iowa leads the nation in corn production, with farmers harvesting 40 times more corn than they did in 1866.

“Collecting, arranging, publishing and disseminating statistical and other useful agriculture information was central to Lincoln’s purpose for establishing the USDA,” says Greg Thessen, director of the NASS field office in Iowa. “We proudly carry forth this responsibility today.”

While the method of collecting information has changed dramatically over the past 150 years, the impact this information has on the marketplace remains just as important today as it did during the Civil War. According to NASS’ 2007 Census of Agriculture, there were 92,856 farms in Iowa, comprising more than 30.7 million acres. The 2012 Ag Census will be conducted later this year and will continue to document the importance of and changes in agriculture in Iowa and across the United States.

USDA’s significance was never more evident than during the Great Depression, a time when America was at a point of tremendous need.

When Wallace led USDA

Leading the USDA during a majority of this time was Iowan Henry A. Wallace. Food stamps and the school lunch program were started during Wallace’s term as U.S. ag secretary. Wallace, who was also very dedicated to research and science, led USDA into becoming a world research leader. Under his guidance, important USDA agencies were created, such as those known today as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency and Rural Development.

“For more than 75 years, NRCS has worked with landowners to ensure Iowa continues to have sustainable, productive lands that feed our nation, while also helping with the implementation of conservation methods that prevent soil erosion, and provide clean air and water to Iowans and the nation,” says Rich Sims, NRCS state conservationist in Des Moines.

NRCS is the only federal agency charged with providing landowners technical assistance on a voluntary basis. Since its establishment in 1935, NRCS has expanded services as farming technology has advanced. “We’ve adapted to the growing needs of farmers, helping them be more site-specific in their conservation planning, capitalizing on variable-rate technologies and adaptive management practices,” Sims adds. This year NRCS will work with nearly 15,000 landowners in Iowa to protect natural resources.

Farm program assistance

The wide range of financial assistance offered through FSA commodity and loan programs has had a tremendous impact in Iowa since being unveiled in November 1933. Just a few weeks later the first corn loans were made in Iowa, and during that crop year thousands of loans were made across the state, using nearly 130 million bushels of corn for collateral. FSA programs were off and running in Iowa.

“USDA has provided the American farmer a strong safety net through disaster assistance, conservation, commodity and price support programs, and farm loans for nearly eight decades,” says John Whitaker, FSA state executive director. “These programs have enabled producers to continue to provide a sustainable, safe, abundant supply of food, fuel and fiber during times of natural disasters and price declines.”

FSA not only assists farmers with commodity and emergency programs, but also helps encourage the next generation of farmers and protects the environment. Since 2007 the total outstanding loan amount to beginning farmers in Iowa has grown by 284%. Also, FSA currently administers more than 106,000 Conservation Reserve Program contracts covering more than 1.6 million acres in Iowa.

Dramatic advancements

The enhancements in quality-of-life opportunities in rural communities during the past 150 years have been just as dramatic as the advances in agriculture. For example, the first telephone was invented 14 years after the USDA was established. Today, mobile smartphones have complete access to the Internet, allowing voices, information and data to be shared instantly across the world.

“USDA’s support of rural communities can be traced back to the 1930s and the Rural Electrification Administration,” says Bill Menner, USDA Rural Development’s state director for Iowa. The first REA loan in Iowa, made on Sept. 24, 1935, was awarded to Central Iowa Power Co.

Menner adds, “Our programs helped bring electricity to farms and broadband to communities. They also continue to ensure that Iowans have safe drinking water, assist families in their efforts to become homeowners, help communities to build hospitals and essential buildings, and aid businesses in their job-creation efforts.”

Leach is public information coordinator for USDA Rural Development in Iowa.

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RURAL DEVELOPMENT: USDA has been helping rural communities such as Winterset in south-central Iowa develop infrastructure, enhance services and improve businesses since 1935.

This article published in the July, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.