Puneet Varma (Editor)

United States Department of Agriculture

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Preceding agency
Agricultural Division

105,778 (June 2007)

United States Department of Agriculture

May 15, 1862; 154 years ago (1862-05-15)Cabinet status: February 15, 1889

U.S. federal government

Jamie L. Whitten Building1301 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C.

Annual budget
US$139.7 billion (2015)

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), also known as the Agriculture Department, is the U.S. federal executive department responsible for developing and executing federal laws related to farming, agriculture, forestry, and food. It aims to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers, promote agricultural trade and production, work to assure food safety, protect natural resources, foster rural communities and end hunger in the United States and internationally.


Approximately 80% of USDA's $140 billion budget goes to the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) program. The largest component of the FNS budget is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp program), which is the cornerstone of USDA's nutrition assistance.

After the resignation of Thomas Vilsack on January 13, 2017 and the departure of President Barack Obama from office on January 20, 2017, the acting Secretary of Agriculture is Michael Young.


Many of the programs concerned with the distribution of food and nutrition to people of America and providing nourishment as well as nutrition education to those in need are run and operated under the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Activities in this program include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides healthy food to over 40 million low-income and homeless people each month. USDA is a member of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, where it is committed to working with other agencies to ensure these mainstream benefits are accessed by those experiencing homelessness.

The USDA also is concerned with assisting farmers and food producers with the sale of crops and food on both the domestic and world markets. It plays a role in overseas aid programs by providing surplus foods to developing countries. This aid can go through USAID, foreign governments, international bodies such as World Food Program, or approved nonprofits. The Agricultural Act of 1949, section 416 (b) and Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, also known as Food for Peace, provides the legal basis of such actions. The USDA is a partner of the World Cocoa Foundation.


Early in its history, the economy of the United States was largely agrarian. Officials in the federal government had long sought new and improved varieties of seeds, plants and animals for import into the United States. In 1837 Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, a Yale-educated attorney interested in improving agriculture, became Commissioner of Patents, a position within the Department of State. He 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 new seeds and plants, a clerk to collect agricultural statistics, statewide reports about crops in different regions, and the application of chemistry to agriculture. Ellsworth was called the "Father of the Department of 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.

Formation and subsequent history

On May 15, 1862, Abraham Lincoln established the independent Department of Agriculture to be headed by a commissioner without Cabinet status, and the agriculturalist Isaac Newton was appointed to be the first such commissioner. Lincoln called it the "people's department". In the 1880s, varied advocacy groups were lobbying for Cabinet representation. Business interests sought a Department of Commerce and Industry, and farmers tried to raise the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet rank. In 1887, the House of Representatives and Senate passed bills giving Cabinet status to the Department of Agriculture and Labor, but the bill was defeated in conference committee after farm interests objected to the addition of labor. Finally, on February 9, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law elevating the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet level.

In 1887, the Hatch Act provided for the federal funding of agricultural experiment stations in each state. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 then funded cooperative extension services in each state to teach agriculture, home economics, and other subjects to the public. With these and similar provisions, the USDA reached out to every county of every state.

During the Great Depression, farming remained a common way of life for millions of Americans. The Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Home Economics, established in 1923, published shopping advice and recipes to stretch family budgets and make food go farther. USDA helped ensure that food continued to be produced and distributed to those who needed it, assisted with loans for small landowners, and contributed to the education of the rural youth.

Organization, budget and tasks

The Department of Agriculture was authorized a budget for Fiscal Year 2015 of $139.7 billion. The budget authorization is broken down as follows:


  • Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) (became part of the Farm Service Agency in 1994)
  • Animal Damage Control (renamed Wildlife Services)
  • Soil Conservation Service (SCS) renamed Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Section of Vegetable Pathology, Division of Botany (1887–90)
  • Renamed Division of Vegetable Pathology (1890–95)
  • In 2015, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressed the desire to resign to President Obama. The Washington Post reports that he said "There are days when I have literally nothing to do," he recalled thinking as he weighed his decision to quit." President Obama did not accept his resignation but assigned him additional tasks of combating opioid addiction, a task usually not assigned to the Department of Agriculture.


    Allegations have been made that throughout the agency's history that its personnel have discriminated against farmers of various backgrounds, denying them loans and access to other programs well into the 1990s. The effect of this discrimination has been the reduction in the number of African-American farmers in the United States. In 1999, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit, the Pigford Case, alleging discrimination against African-American farmers in the late twentieth century. The government's settlement of nearly $1 billion with more than 13,300 farmers was reportedly the largest civil rights claim to date. The 2008 Farm Bill provided for additional farmers to have their claims heard, as 70,000 had filed late in the original program. In 2010 the federal government made another $1.2 billion settlement in what is called Pigford II for outstanding claims.

    Many black farmers across the nation experienced discrimination in their dealings with in-state USDA agencies. Across the nation, black farmers alleged, and the USDA later agreed, they were denied access to loans and subsidies provided by the government. On a national level, farm subsidies that were afforded to white farmers were not afforded to black farmers. Since they were denied government loans, emergency or disaster assistance, and other aid, many black farmers lost their farms and homes.

    Pigford v. Glickman

    Following long-standing concerns, black farmers joined a class action discrimination suit against the USDA filed in federal court in 1997. An attorney called it "the most organized, largest civil rights case in the history of the country".

    Also in 1997, black farmers from at least five states held protests in front of the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Protests in front of the USDA were a strategy employed in later years as the black farmers sought to keep national attention focused on the plight of the black farmers. Representatives of the National Black Farmers Association met with President Bill Clinton and other administration officials at the White House. And NBFA's president testified before the United States House Committee on Agriculture.

    In Pigford v. Glickman, U.S. Federal District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman approved the settlement and consent decree on April 14, 1999. The settlement recognized discrimination against 22,363 black farmers but the NBFA would later call the agreement incomplete because more than 70,000 were excluded. Nevertheless, the settlement was deemed to be the largest-ever civil rights class action settlement in American history. Lawyers estimated the value of the settlement to be more than $2 billion. Some farmers would have their debts forgiven. Judge Friedman appointed a monitor to oversee the settlement. Farmers in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Georgia were among those affected by the settlement.

    Reopening of case

    The NBFA's president was invited to testify before congress on this matter numerous times following the settlement including before the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture on September 12, 2000, when he testified that many farmers had not yet received payments and others were left out of the settlement. NBFA asked Congress to pass legislation that would ensure a full resolution of the discrimination cases.

    Environmental Working Group and NBFA issued a report in July 2004 accusing the USDA of withholding nearly three out of every four dollars in the multibillion-dollar settlement of discrimination cases. The report says that the U.S. Department of Justice and the USDA pursued a path of "willful obstruction of justice" in blocking many of the cases. It was later revealed that one DoJ staff "general attorney" was unlicensed while she was handling black farmers' cases. NBFA called for all those cases to be reheard.

    In 2006 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report highly critical of the USDA in its handling of the black farmers cases.

    NBFA continued to lobby Congress to provide relief. NBFA's Boyd secured congressional support for legislation that would provide $100 million in funds to settle late-filer cases. In 2006 a bill was introduced into the House of Representatives and later the Senate by Senator George Felix Allen.

    In 2007 Boyd testified before the United States House Committee on the Judiciary about this legislation.

    As the organization was making headway by gathering Congressional supporters in 2007 it was revealed that some USDA Farm Services Agency employees were engaged in activities aimed at blocking Congressional legislation that would aid the black farmers.

    President Barack Obama, then a U.S. Senator, lent his support to the black farmers' issues in 2007. A bill cosponsored by Obama passed the Senate in 2007.

    The Senate and House versions of the black farmers bill, reopening black farmers discrimination cases, became law in 2008. The new law could affect up to 74,000 black farmers according to some news reports.

    In 2008 hundreds of black farmers, denied a chance to have their cases heard in the Pigford settlement, filed a new lawsuit against USDA.

    In 2008, the GAO issued a report criticizing the USDA's handling of discrimination complaints. The GAO recommended an oversight review board to examine civil rights complaints.

    After numerous public rallies and an intensive NBFA member lobbying effort, Congress approved and Obama signed into law in December 2010 legislation that set aside $1.15 billion to resolve the outstanding black farmers cases. NBFA's John W. Boyd, Jr., attended the bill-signing ceremony at the White House.

    As of 2013, 90,000 African-American, Hispanic, female and Native American farmers had filed claims, some fraudulent, or even transparently bogus. Lack of documentation is an issue complicated by the USDA practice of discarding denied applications after three years. In Maple Hill, North Carolina, the number of successful claimants was four times the number of farms with 1 out of 9 African-Americans being paid.

    The result of such longstanding discrimination is that black farmers have been forced out of business at a rate three times faster than white farmers. In 1920, 1 in 7 U.S. farmers was African-American, and now the number is 1 in 100. USDA spokesman Ed Loyd, when acknowledging that the USDA loan process was unfair to minority farmers, has claimed it is hard to determine the effect on such farmers.

    Important legislation setting policy of the USDA includes the:

  • 1890, 1891, 1897, 1906 Meat Inspection Act
  • 1906: Pure Food and Drug Act
  • 1914: Cotton Futures Act
  • 1916: Federal Farm Loan Act
  • 1917: Food Control and Production Acts
  • 1921: Packers and Stockyards Act
  • 1922: Grain Futures Act
  • 1922: National Agricultural Conference
  • 1923: Agricultural Credits Act
  • 1930: Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act
  • 1930: Foreign Agricultural Service Act
  • 1933: Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA)
  • 1933: Farm Credit Act
  • 1935: Resettlement Administration
  • 1936: Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act
  • 1937: Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act
  • 1941: National Victory Garden Program
  • 1941: Steagall Amendment
  • 1946: Farmers Home Administration
  • 1946: National School Lunch Act PL 79-396
  • 1946: Research and Marketing Act
  • 1948: Hope-Aiken Agriculture Act PL 80-897
  • 1956: Soil Bank Program authorized
  • 1957: Poultry Inspection Act
  • 1947: Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act PL 80-104
  • 1949: Agricultural Act PL 81-439 (Section 416 (b))
  • 1954: Food for Peace Act PL 83-480
  • 1954: Agricultural Act PL 83-690
  • 1956: Mutual Security Act PL 84-726
  • 1957: Poultry Products Inspection Act PL 85-172
  • 1958: Food Additives Amendment PL 85-929
  • 1958: Humane Slaughter Act
  • 1958: Agricultural Act PL 85-835
  • 1961: Agricultural Act PL 87-128
  • 1964: Agricultural Act PL 88-297
  • 1964: Food Stamp Act PL 88-525
  • 1964: Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act Extension PL 88-305
  • 1965: Appalachian Regional Development Act
  • 1965: Food and Agriculture Act PL 89-321
  • 1966: Child Nutrition Act PL 89-642
  • 1967: Wholesome Meat Act PL 90-201
  • 1968: Wholesome Poultry Products Act PL 90-492
  • 1970: Agricultural Act PL 91-524
  • 1972: Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act PL 92-516
  • 1970: Environmental Quality Improvement Act
  • 1970: Food Stamp Act PL 91-671
  • 1972: Rural Development Act
  • 1972: Rural Development Act Reform 3.31
  • 1972: National School Lunch Act Amendments (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) PL 92-433
  • 1973: Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act PL 93-86
  • 1974: Safe Drinking Water Act PL 93-523
  • 1977: Food and Agriculture Act PL 95-113
  • 1985: Food Security Act PL 99-198
  • 1996: Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act PL 104-127
  • 1996: Food Quality Protection Act PL 104-170
  • 2000: Agriculture Risk Protection Act PL 106-224
  • 2002: Farm Security and Rural Investment Act PL 107-171
  • 2008: Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 PL 110-246
  • 2010: Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 PL 111-296
  • References

    United States Department of Agriculture Wikipedia