USDA, land grant universities celebrate 150 years

Photo by Ken Hammond

Abraham Lincoln signed the law to establish the U.S. Department of Agriculture 150 years ago this week. He called the new agency “The People’s Department.” That’s a fitting name for USDA because it affects every American every day in ways most people don’t realize.

 “The American Farm Bureau Federation congratulates Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and USDA on the department’s 150th anniversary. President Abraham Lincoln is known for many achievements during his lifetime, but a little known triumph of his—that affects all Americans—was the establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture 150 years ago today,” AFBF President Bob Stallman said.

USDA’s 100,000 employees plus are spread out all over the world and the work that they do runs the gamut from the most basic kind of research in how to approve crop production to ensuring that those who are less fortunate have enough food on the table.

Here are a few facts about USDA:

  •  One in 7 Americans is now receiving some form of nutrition assistance through USDA’s programs to help get them through this downturn in the economy.
  • USDA serves breakfast and lunch to 32 million kids a day through the school lunch program, provides thousands of rural business loans each year and conducts research in renewable energy to lessen our reliance on foreign oil.
  • Meat, poultry and a good part of the egg production in this country is inspected for safety and wholesomeness by the Food Safety Inspection Service. They also, through the Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service, protect against animal and plant diseases and pests.

“The research component is what has given the United States a comparative advantage throughout the world in terms of being able to meet the demands for a growing population on the food production side,” said Dale Moore, AFBF’s Deputy Executive Director of Public Policy who was a senior staff members at USDA for eight years “Not just in raising more crops or raising more pounds of livestock, but also to do that more economically in ways that can better deal with what Mother Nature may throw at a producer when they’re trying to raise those commodities.”

Moore continued, “USDA is literally the only federal agency that can build a town from the ground up. You take its rural development mission and all the different loans whether it’s water and sewer, power , other forms of energy, schools, churches, hospitals, the whole infrastructure part of the process as well as business and economic development. You’ve obviously got the farm program areas, the Farm Service Agency and when when you take into account the Extension agents, you take into account the conservation work, the Forest Service work, you’ve got an agency that literally has a presence in virtually every county in the United States.”

In the same year that USDA was created, Abraham Lincoln also signed another very important piece of legislation – The Morrill Act of 1862. This Act created our land grant universities. Virginia is very fortunate to have two land grant universities – Virginia Tech (established as a land grant in 1872) and Virginia State University (established as land grant in 1920).

The Morrill Act granted vast holdings of federal lands to states based on the size of their congressional delegations. The lands were to be sold to provide an endowment for the establishment of “at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

The rationale for the creation of land grant universities was to provide educational opportunities where members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education. It was an educational system to emphasis emerging applied sciences – particularly agriculture science and engineering.

“Lincoln understood the importance of agriculture to America, and, as importantly, he realized science and technology played a major role in the farming industry,” Stallman said.  

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