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By John W. McCauley
One hundred and fifty years ago, in the midst of a great Civil War, it was a Kentuckian, President Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin at Sinking Springs Farm in present day LaRue County, that signed legislation to establish a Department of Agriculture in order to “acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture … and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.
Armed with broad mandates, the “People’s Department,” as he called it, set about to serve American farmers and a mostly rural American landscape. At that time, almost half of all Americans lived on farms, compared with about two percent today. The population in 1862 was then about 31.4 million and today, that number has increased tenfold to almost 313 million people.
Over the last 150 years, through the department’s work on food science, agricultural research, nutrition assistance, bio-fuel production, economic and community development, natural resource conservation, international trade, credit, and a host of other issues, the USDA still fulfills Abraham Lincoln’s original vision – touching the lives of every American, every day in almost every way. By any measure, it’s been a very successful 150 years for USDA. Americans benefit from safe, abundant and reasonably-priced food. We produce 85 percent of what we consume and therefore enjoy food security. Our food, fuel and fiber industries provide employment for more than 20 million Americans. Agricultural exports continue to post significant trade surpluses which, in turn, have generated almost one million jobs alone.
As we look to the decades ahead, USDA must continue to contribute to the strength and health of the nation by becoming a more modern and effective service provider. We must tighten our belt, just as many Americans are doing with their household budgets.
In the past few decades, American agriculture has become one of the most productive sectors of our economy, thanks to farmers, ranchers and growers adopting technology, reducing their debt, and effectively managing risk. USDA is adopting these same lessons in its Blueprint for Stronger Service, announced by Secretary Vilsack earlier this year.
The Blueprint for Stronger Service aims to build a modern and efficient service organization that is closely aligned with technological innovations - and better suited to respond to 21st century agricultural challenges.
The challenges ahead are many, both for USDA and American agriculture, but by focusing on a strong safety net for farmers and ranchers, supporting policies that encourage sustainable productivity, and by promoting vibrant markets that help feed consumers at home and abroad, the “People’s Department” will continue to help create jobs, support working families, strengthen rural communities, and build on the success and productivity of the America’s farmers and ranchers.