Agriculture Department

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Agriculture Department

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is an executive, cabinet-level department in the federal government. It is directed by the secretary of agriculture, who reports to the president of the United States. Its primary concern is the nation's agriculture industry, and it addresses this concern through numerous economic, regulatory, environmental, and scientific programs. The USDA provides financial aid to farmers through loans, grants, and a system of price supports that delicately balances the nation's agriculture markets, and its international efforts to promote domestically grown products abroad. It regulates the quality and output of the grain, meat, and poultry industries. Through various conservation programs, the department helps protect soil, water, forests, and other natural resources. The USDA also administers the federal Food Stamp Program, one of the Welfare system's largest services.

The USDA has a long history. It was created by an act of May 15, 1862 (12 Stat. 387, now codified at 7 U.S.C.A. § 2201), and was administered by a commissioner of agriculture until 1889 (25 Stat. 659). In 1889, Congress enlarged the department's powers and duties (7 U.S.C.A. §§ 2202, 2208). It made the USDA the eighth executive department in the federal government, and the commissioner became the secretary of agriculture. Federal lawmakers have tinkered with the department ever since. Notably, programs providing economic aid to farmers were established during the Great Depression, and they have since become a firmly entrenched part of federal law. Important contemporary reforms have included federal welfare services such as the Food Stamp Program, administered through the Food and Nutrition Service since the 1970s, and the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C.A. § 1421 note et seq.), enacted to maintain the income of farmers. The Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (Freedom to Farm Act) (Pub.L. 104–127, Apr. 4, 1996, 110 Stat. 888), and the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (Farm Bill 2002) (Pub.L. 107–171, May 13, 2002, 116 Stat. 134), while promising less reliance on farm subsidies, have continued the department's central role in administering subsidy programs.

The secretary of agriculture sits above an elaborate bureaucracy. The deputy secretary runs day-to-day operations, serving as the secretary's principal adviser. Reporting to the secretary and deputy secretary are six officers: chief financial officer, general counsel, inspector general, executive of operations, director of communications, and chief information officer. These officers and their staffs coordinate the USDA's personnel management program; equal opportunity and Civil Rights activities; safety and health activities; management improvement programs; media relations; accounting, fiscal, and financial activities; automated data processing administration; procurement and contracts; and management of real and Personal Property.

Legal affairs are handled in various branches of the USDA. The judicial officer serves as the final deciding officer, in the place of the secretary, in regulatory proceedings and appeals of a Quasi-Judicial nature where a hearing is required by law. Two quasi-judicial agencies, the Office of Administrative Law Judges and the Board of Contract Appeals, adjudicate cases and decide contract disputes. Additional input to the secretary comes from the general counsel, who is both the principal legal adviser and the chief law officer of the department. All audits and investigations are conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, established by the Inspector General Act of 1978 (5 U.S.C.A. § 2 et seq.). The Office of Congressional Relations informs Congress of administrative policy.

Also reporting to the secretary and deputy secretary are seven under secretaries who over-see major divisions. These divisions include Rural Development; Marketing and Regulatory Programs; Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services; Food Safety; Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service; Natural Resources and Environment; and Research, Education, and Economics. The USDA also runs a graduate school.

Rural Development

The Rural Development division includes three programs that provide financial help to farmers and rural communities. The Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBS) provides and guarantees loans to public entities and private parties who cannot obtain credit from other sources. Loans are made to help finance industry and business and to provide jobs in rural areas. The Rural Housing Service (RHS) provides affordable rental housing, home ownership opportunities, and essential community facilities. It also provides loans to buy, operate, and improve farms, and guarantees loans from commercial lenders. The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is a credit agency that helps rural electric and telephone utilities obtain financing.

Marketing and Regulatory Programs

The Marketing and Regulatory Programs division oversees three major programs. The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) administers standardization, grading, inspection, market news, marketing orders, research, promotion, and regulatory programs. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conducts programs pertaining to quarantine, environmental protection, the humane treatment of animals, and the reduction of crop and livestock losses. The Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration regulates grain, meat, poultry industries, and other commodities. It also enforces antitrust laws to ensure fair competition in the meat industry.

Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services

The Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services division includes two social welfare programs and one consumer information service. The Food and Nutrition Service administers federal assistance programs to needy people, including the Food Stamp Program, special nutrition programs, and supplemental food programs. The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) conducts research to improve professional and public understanding of diets and eating, and develops the national Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The CNPP also focuses on consumer advocacy by helping USDA policy makers, representing the department before Congress, monitoring USDA programs, and conducting consumer outreach.

Food Safety

The Food Safety division administers the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). Established in 1981, the FSIS conducts federal meat and poultry inspections on cattle, swine, goats, sheep, lambs, horses, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and guineas used for human food. It also inspects the production of egg products. The service monitors meat and poultry products in storage, distribution, and retail channels.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the USDA emphasized the need to protect the nation's food supply. It primarily focused on bioterrorist threats and worked to establish an infrastructure that will provide better food safety. For example, additional Import Surveillance Liaison (ISL) inspectors were hired to focus on specific points of entry across the United States, and to re-inspect meats and poultry that were being imported from other countries. The USDA also increased resources at universities and laboratories where research into biological agents, and food safety analysis were taking place. Such initiatives will ultimately benefit the overall integrity of the nation's food supply.

Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service

The Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service division administers three programs that help maintain a stable market for farm commodities, thus ensuring a steady income for farmers. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers programs of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). These programs include so-called price supports: farmers who agree to limit their production of specially designated crops can sell them to the CCC or borrow money at support prices. The FSA also furnishes emergency financial aid to farmers, operates a grain reserve program, provides milk producers refunds of the reduction in the price received for milk during a calendar year, and provides payments to dairy farmers if their milk is removed from the market because of contamination. It has responsibility for plans relating to food production and conservation in preparation for a national security emergency, and provides incentives for preserving and protecting agricultural resources. The Risk Management Agency (RMA) provides crop insurance to farmers to protect them against unexpected production losses caused by natural causes.

The division also has an international focus. The Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) has primary responsibility for the USDA's overseas market information, access, and development programs. Maintaining a worldwide agricultural intelligence and reporting system, it also administers the USDA's export assistance and foreign food assistance programs. The Office of International Cooperation and Development (OICD) helps other USDA agencies and U.S. universities enhance U.S. agricultural competitiveness globally. Through utilizing the technical expertise of the U.S. agricultural community, it seeks to increase income and food availability in developing nations.

Natural Resources and Environment

Two programs in the Natural Resources and Environment division address environmental resources. The Forest Service oversees the national forests. It manages 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and 8 land-utilization projects on over 191 million acres in 44 states, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. It provides national leadership, and financial and technical assistance, to owners and operators of nonfederal forestland, processors of forest products, and urban forestry interests. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has responsibility for developing and carrying out a national soil and water conservation program in cooperation with landowners, developers, communities, and federal, state, and local agencies. It also assists in agricultural Pollution control, environmental improvement, and rural community development.

Research, Education, and Economics

The Research, Education, and Economics division administers four major programs. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) conducts studies in the United States and overseas to improve farming. The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service administers acts of Congress that authorize federal appropriations for agricultural research carried out by the State Agricultural Experiment Stations. The Extension Service is the educational agency of the USDA. The National Agricultural Statistics Service provides information services to everyone from research scientists to the general public, and maintains the electronic Agricultural Online Access (AGRICOLA) database, available over the Internet and on compact disc. It prepares estimates and reports on production, supply, price, and other economic information. The Economic Research Service (ERS) analyzes economic and other social science data in order to improve agricultural performance and rural living It makes analyses of recommendations by USDA agencies, task forces, and study groups to be used as a basis for short-term agricultural policy.

USDA Graduate School

The Graduate School, U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a continuing education school offering career-related training to adults. Not directly funded by Congress or the USDA, it is self-supporting, with a mostly part-time faculty drawn from government and industry. The graduate school, administered by a director and governed by a general administration board appointed by the secretary of agriculture, was established on September 2, 1921, pursuant to act of May 15, 1862 (7 U.S.C.A. § 2201); joint resolution of April 12, 1892 (27 Stat. 395); and the Deficiencies Appropriation Act of March 3, 1901 (20 U.S.C.A. §. 91).

Further readings

Agriculture Department. Available online at <> (accessed May 29, 2003).

Drummond, H. Evan, and John W. Goodwin. 2000. Agricultural Economics. New York: Prentice Hall.

Hallberg, Milton C. 1992. Policy for American Agriculture: Choices and Consequences. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press.

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Agricultural Law; Agriculture Subsidies; Consumer Protection; Environmental Law.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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We have met with Dave Tenny, acting undersecretary for natural resources and environment in the Agriculture Department, and Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth--both expressed substantial interest in community forestry.

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