A Short History of the USDA
Until the mid 1800s, many states vehemently opposed central planning for agriculture, though George Washington unsuccessfully called for the creation of a Board of Agriculture for the dissemination of educational information. Thus, until 1861, schools of botanical research were supported by state funds and private universities.
The Hatch Act of 1887 transformed the Bureau of Agriculture, which was established in 1862 by Lincoln, into the Department of Agriculture and made the Commissioner a Secretary of Agriculture and a member of the president's cabinet. This act opened agriculture in the United States to the whims of Congress and lobbyists and was the beginning of an era of greatly expanded federal powers. Originally an organization devoted to research, today the USDA governs the way millions of Americans are fed daily, controls what food is available for our purchase, and decides what crops receive federal funding.
Originally, the Bureau of Agriculture's intended role was to increase crop production and promote new research discoveries. The first Commissioner of Agriculture, Isaac Newton, had a yearly budget of less than $90 thousand which enabled him to hire four scientists (entomology, chemistry, statistics, and horticulture) that oversaw all of the nation's farms.
The Hatch Act authorized federal funds for the development of agricultural research at land grant colleges (colleges of agriculture set up on tracts of government-owned land, begun in 1859 and further spurred by the Morrill Act). Only four years later, every state had a land grant college and was hiring personnel, often at the demand of political bosses whose goal was to maximize production for export. Only 6 years later than that in 1897, the USDA employed nearly 2450 people with an annual budget of $3 million.
Calls for socialization of farming came as early as the late 1800s: federal legislation against farm foreclosures, long-term loans at low interest, nationalization of railroad and telegraph systems, and government warehouses for storing grain in order to receive government loan credits for the crops' retail value. Many of these ideas were eventually incorporated into Roosevelt's New Deal programs. But until the early 1900s, the USDA was mostly focused on research and discovery, financing agricultural exploration in foreign lands, and hiring botanists trained to search for new plants and varieties that would launch new agriculture in the US. But by the early 1900s, the focus of the USDA shifted to food inspection. By 1907, the Pure Food and Drug Act enforced milk pasteurization, meat inspection, and enacted an inspection system for foods sold by interstate commerce. Regulations for better sanitation and fewer adulterated food products were called for by the chief chemist of the USDA. By 1912, the USDA's appropriation of federal funds had reached $24 million.
During 1920-1929 farm prices dropped and operating costs increased, with many areas of the country experiencing significant drought. The same decade saw the annual budget of the USDA increase to $150 million as the organization moved toward price supports for crops, begun by Herbert Hoover. When Roosevelt was elected, he called for new farm policies within a week and offered subsidy payments for reducing crop and animal production. With the addition of the school lunch program and FDR's New Granary, the USDA budget grew to $279 million in 1932, then ballooned to $1293 million in 1939, at that point with nearly 80,000 employees. Although acreage of American's farms was cut back, increasing yields per acre outpaced the acreage cutbacks. Farm organizations once committed to independence and skeptical of government programs became convinced that government could solve their problems, and became lobbyists for more federal funding. High operating costs, low prices, and technology developments spurred the consolidation of farms. In 1933, beginning with FDR, the era of the "Farm Bill" began. Every five to seven years, Congress passes a complicated set of legislative acts, known as omnibus legislation and dubbed the "Farm Bill" with each farm bill receiving a separate name.
By 1959, the USDA was paying more than $2 billion for crop-reduction subsidies because of overproduction -- ironically spurred by the research of USDA scientists. Government handling and storing of these surplus farm crops, begun by FDR, cost the federal government $482 million in 1959. Costs for handling and storing farm crops increased to $2.8 billion by 1983. By 1984, 120 years after its inception, the USDA had grown to nearly 136,000 employees and was four times as large as the State Department and seven times as large as the Labor Department. The annual budget of the USDA averaged $30 billion. Roughly half of it was allocated to food stamps and the school lunch program, begun in the FDR era.
Between 2002 to 2007, roughly 2/3 of the Farm Bill was allocated to food stamps and the school lunch program and the overall budget spun wildly out of control at roughly $45 billion per year. Despite the fact that the 1996 Farm Bill (the "Freedom to Farm" Act) was intended to eliminate subsidies altogether, roughly 40% of the 2007 wheat crop, still subsidized by the federal government, is held in government storage bins. The original purpose of the USDA, research, consumed only 2% of the USDA annual budget during this time period. Regulation of the food supply, the second adopted purpose of the USDA in the early 1900s, also received only 2% of the USDA annual budget. The costs of the entire farm bill to the American taxpayer, including farm "support" and nutrition programs, both of which were not adopted until the early 1930s roughly 70 years after the inception of the USDA, now make up a staggering 96% of the annual Farm Bill budget. The projected Farm Bill budget for 2008 onward is expected to be $60 billion annually.
I've looked up some of the legislation which brought the USDA into being through the action of President Lincoln. I've often wondered if it would not be well to have a Blue Ribbon Commission study of the whole question of the objectives and purposes of USDA in the years of Abraham Lincoln, then trace the history of more recent developments and determine the future possibilities of the USDA. -- Ezra Taft Benson, former Secretary of Agriculture, in personal correspondence to Robert West Howard.
Howard RW. 1985. The Vanishing Land. New York: Villard Books. 307 p.
Imhoff D. 2007. Food Fight: A Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 137 p.