The United States Department of Agriculture (also called the Agriculture Department, or USDA) is a United States Federal Executive Department (or Cabinet Department). Its purpose is to develop and execute policy on farming, agriculture, 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 America and abroad. Ed Schafer is the department's secretary, following his nomination by President Bush on October 31, 2007 and confirmation by the Senate on January 28, 2008.
Ellsworth's interest in aiding agriculture was evident in his annual reports that called for a public depository to preserve and distribute the various new seeds and plants, a clerk to collect agricultural statistics, the preparation of statewide reports about crops in different regions, and the application of chemistry to agriculture. Henry Leavitt Ellsworth's agricultural focus earned him the sobriquet of "The Father of the U.S. 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.
On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln established the independent Department of Agriculture to be headed by a Commissioner without cabinet status. Lincoln called it the "people's department". In the 1880s, varied special interest groups were lobbying for Cabinet representation. Business interests sought a Department of Commerce and Industry. Farmers tried to raise the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet rank. In 1887, the House and Senate passed bills giving cabinet status to the Department of Agriculture and Labor, but farm interests objected to the addition of labor, and the bill was killed in conference. 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 related 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 was crucial to providing concerned persons with the assistance that they needed to make it through this difficult period, helping to ensure that food continued to be produced and distributed to those who needed it, assisting with loans for small landowners, and contributing to the education of the rural youth. In this way, the Department of Agriculture became a source of comfort as people struggled to survive in rural areas. Allegations have been made that throughout the agency's history it discriminated against African-American farmers, denying them loans and access to other programs well into the 1990s. In 1999, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit alleging discrimination against African-American farmers.
Today, 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.
USDA also concerns itself with assisting farmers and food procucers with the sale of crops and food on both a domestic and on the world market.
USDA also plays an important role in overseas aid programs, by providing surplus foods to developing countries to support development programs, sometimes via USAID or directly to foreign governments, international bodies such as WFP or approved non profit organizations. The Agriculture Act of 1949, section 416 (b) and Agricultural Development and Trade Act of 1954 (also known as Public Law 480 or just PL 480) provides the legal basis of such actions.
The United States Secretary of Agriculture administers the USDA.
The USDA's National Animal Identification System assists large agri-business and factory farms track disease in herds, a necessary regulation for sale of meat overseas.
Important legislation setting policy of the USDA includes the:
The grants and loans are awarded through the Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program of the USDA Rural Development office. The program was created by Section 9006 of the 2002 Farm Bill and will be expanded next year under the 2008 Farm Bill.