USDA has a lot to celebrate

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


We would be remiss if we did not wish the U.S. Department of Agriculture a belated, but heartfelt, happy 150th birthday.

Research conducted or funded by the department has helped make American farmers the world's most productive. It has played an important role in providing farmers with information about the industry's best production and resource conservation practices. Its market statistics are an invaluable tool for producers.

We think it has done a lot of good and continues to be an asset for farmers.

It has also grown into a behemoth that serves as a case study in governmental mission creep.

USDA was born on May 15, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation authorizing its formation. It was to "acquire and to diffuse" useful information about agriculture, and to "procure, propagate, and distribute ... new and valuable seeds and plants." There was no mention of regulating anything, or in any other tangible way inserting itself into the operations of farms and processors.

Many legislators were wary of a government ag department, according to a history written by the USDA. So at its creation, USDA was a noncabinet department managed by a commissioner -- who was required to post a $10,000 bond to ensure a true accounting of appropriations and expenditures. Commissioner Isaac Newton set off with a clerk, four scientists and a $90,000 budget.

Sen. John Hale, R-N.H., worried the new department would soon be headed by a cabinet secretary, while Sen. Edgar Cowan, R-Pa., predicted its work would grow until "it swallowed up half a million dollars of the people's money."

Hale's fear was realized in 1889 when the USDA became a cabinet-level department. Congress almost immediately began expanding the USDA's mandate and appropriation to address a growing list of concerns.

By 1897 USDA had 2,444 employees and a budget of $3.6 million. When it celebrated its first 50 years in 1912, it had 13,858 employees, and a budget of $21 million.

In 1929 it spent $150 million. Ten years and a plethora of Depression-era programs later, the budget topped $1.2 billion and the department had 80,000 employees. When it turned 100, the USDA was spending $6.4 billion a year and had 111,000 employees.

At least 65 pieces of major legislation have expanded the USDA's mission over the years. It covers the gamut from meat inspection to national forests, rural development to futures trading.

Today the USDA has a budget of $145 billion, 74 percent of which is spent on school lunches, supplemental nutrition assistance and WIC. A scant $2 billion goes towards its original agriculture research and education mission.

We think a Department of Agriculture focused on agriculture, and nothing else, might better serve the interests of farmers and ranchers.

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