After 150 years, USDA continues to uphold Lincoln's vision

BY RYAN MCMULLEN Published: May 18, 2012
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Today's farmer feeds more than 150 people, each farmer producing five times as much as our grandparents, and doing it with less land, water, energy and fewer emissions. Agriculture has advanced significantly over the 150-year history of the federal agency charged with its support.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was established by President Abraham Lincoln on May 15, 1862. Even during the Civil War, the darkest days of any American presidency, Lincoln viewed agriculture as a critical component of his domestic policy. In addition to the USDA Act, that summer Lincoln signed into law the Morrill and Homestead Acts.

This legislation provided for the development and education of rural America, and would prove to be the most transformative of any policies ever targeted toward rural Americans. Speaking optimistically about education's effect upon agriculture and rural America, Lincoln said, “No other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.”

Lincoln embraced technology and advocated for what he called “thorough cultivation.” He defined this and his vision for agriculture as “putting the soil to the top of its capacity — producing the largest crop possible from a given quantity of ground.”

As our nation and technology developed, Lincoln's vision manifested itself by helping American farmers and ranchers access the latest technology and adapt to a changing economic and environmental landscape.

This support became most evident during the 1930s Dust Bowl. USDA scientists brought forth research to slow the unimaginable soil loss, and partnered with local conservation districts to prevent this disaster's return. Despite recent droughts that exceeded those of the Dust Bowl, this continued partnership between USDA and landowners helped ensure this chapter of history wasn't repeated.

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