Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On A 150-Year Milestone for USDA

Congressional Record

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


MR. LEAHY.  Today marks the 150th anniversary of the United States Department of Agriculture, and I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to USDA’s mission and day-to-day work and to all those involved in the agriculture industry -- from farmers and ranchers and foresters, to producers and manufacturers and researchers.  

The Department of Agriculture is pillar and post in American agriculture, fostering durability while enabling innovation; bridging old and new, rural and urban.  Agriculture has long been a centerpiece of Vermont’s economy and way of life. The impact of agricultural industry is felt in every State, and in every household.  In fact, one in every 12 Americans is employed in an agriculture-related industry, and in Vermont, the importance of our agricultural working landscape to tourism, to recreation and to the identity of our State is beyond measure.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, on May 15, 1862, with the stroke of President Abraham Lincoln’s pen, the Department of Agriculture was established, with the purpose of acquiring information through “scientific experiments” and finding, collecting, and disseminating “new and valuable seeds and plants.”  It is worth noting that the establishment of the USDA was the first in a series of the foundational acts of Congress that helped to develop our modern agricultural system.

Among these other landmark laws is the Morrill Act, named for Vermont’s own Senator Justin Morrill, which established our land grant colleges, and which also is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.  Senator Morrill rightly believed that college education should expand beyond arts and classical studies to include agriculture and life sciences. In the last 150 years, our land grant colleges have provided the foundation for agricultural research and have helped give the United States a competitive advantage in the global market, in addition to becoming inarguably the best public institutions of higher learning in the world.

Thanks to the hard work of our Nation’s agricultural producers, to the research done at our land grant colleges, to the dedication of U.S. Department of Agriculture employees across the country, and to the policies and programs overseen by the Department of Agriculture, American consumers enjoy a safe and plentiful food supply.  We Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of our disposable income on food, the lowest in the world.  This would not be possible without the science, policies, and vital programs advanced by the USDA in fostering our modernized agricultural and food systems.

The Department of Agriculture also manages some of the Nation’s most significant ongoing conservation and environmental quality efforts.

Farming is hard work.  Farming also is an inherently risky venture, subject to the whims of nature, as well as the volatility of the commodity marketplace.  The programs USDA manages at the local level have helped make risk manageable for farmers – especially when it comes to small family farms.  These programs have been a steadying element – a balance wheel, smoothing out major risks, allowing America’s farmers to harness the earth’s bounty and giving American consumers access to unrivaled food security and variety.

Despite – and, in some cases, as an unintended result of – the great advances in agriculture in the last 150 years, there is more work to be done.  Too many Americans still endure hunger, with almost 50 million Americans living in food insecure households, while at the same time two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and obesity-related disease is fast becoming an epidemic in this country.  Globally, one billion people – out of a population of 7 billion – are hungry and food insecure.  As the world population increases, we must continue our scientific effort in agriculture research and innovation, and we must not simply produce more food; we must also improve access to and consumption of healthier foods.  These goals need to be achieved while we work to restore natural ecosystems that are fundamental to sustaining life on earth. 

My home state of Vermont has placed itself at the forefront of developing and implementing the agricultural and food systems that the planet will depend on in the 21st Century, and the USDA is a critical partner in this essential venture.  The USDA is providing needed technical support to enhance the efficiency of our dairy and diversified farms; the USDA provides the financial and risk management tools that farmers need to diversify and survive in a changing climate and volatile markets; the USDA supports cutting-edge research at the land grant University of Vermont; the USDA is vitally important to rural communities and businesses; USDA conservation programs are the lynchpin of our work to improve water quality; and the USDA Organic program has kept Vermont at the forefront of this fast-growing and promising sector.  In fact, in Vermont, and across the Nation, the Department of Agriculture manages some of the Nation’s most significant ongoing conservation and environmental quality efforts.

The USDA has deep and longstanding roots throughout rural America and in our communities.  Being in and being of the communities that the USDA serves makes a crucial difference, as we saw last year in Vermont through the many ways that USDA’s diligent workforce became an integral part of the response to the disastrous damage wrought by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene.

We face many challenges today, but with smart, effective and sustainable agricultural policies, the United States is in a prime position to lead the war against global hunger and toward public health while also protecting our water, air and open spaces for generations to come.

As a lifelong Vermonter I value my state’s farming traditions and I am proud of the hard work of Vermont’s farmers who have persisted in a difficult economy, embracing innovation and change.  Some are transitioning to organic operations, and others focusing on direct marketing opportunities or value-added products.  Farming is not an easy way of life, but it has remained a cornerstone of Vermont’s economy, and the Nation’s, because of the dedication our farmers and producers, the research of our land grant colleges, and the policies and support of the Department of Agriculture.  I am proud to see so many young people returning to the farms of Vermont.  Some are continuing their family's farming legacy, while others are the first in several generations to turn back to the land.  All of them have a deep dedication to the stewardship of Vermont’s natural resources and to the working landscape that is helping to strengthen our economy.

I am proud to be a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and to have had the opportunity to serve as its chairman.  I also consider it a great privilege to be able to offer Vermonters a seat at the table when policy matters affecting our state’s farmers and our state’s economy, such as our current work on the 2012 Farm Bill, are written and considered.

Agriculture is part of the lifeblood of the American economy then, now, and in the future.

I wish the Department of Agriculture a “Happy 150th Birthday” and continued success in the USDA’s vital missions that are so important to each and every American family, and to the world.

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