Over the coming weeks, the landscape in Oklahoma will change dramatically as state-of-the-art combines comb meticulously through fields of golden wheat, allowing Oklahoma farmers to deliver an estimated 150 million bushels to their local grain elevators. The varieties harvested were exhaustively developed to maximize yield and minimize susceptibility to pests, while improving milling and baking qualities.
Such innovation allows today’s farmer to feed over 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 department charged with its support.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was established by President Abraham Lincoln on May 15, 1862. Even in the midst of the Civil War, the darkest days of any American presidency, Lincoln viewed agriculture as a critically important component of his domestic policy. In addition to the Department of Agriculture Act, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act during the summer of 1862.
This collection of legislation, providing for the development and education of rural America, would prove to be the most transformative of any policies ever targeted towards rural Americans. Speaking optimistically about the affect education would have 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.”
President Lincoln embraced technology and advocated for what he called “thorough cultivation”. Lincoln 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”. Lincoln’s vision manifested itself through USDA’s earliest work in agricultural research and education.
As our nation and technology developed, USDA continued to fulfill Lincoln’s vision by helping American farmers and ranchers access the latest technology and adapt to a changing economic and environmental landscape.
This support became most dramatically evident in Oklahoma during the 1930’s Dust Bowl, the greatest manmade disaster in our nation’s history. USDA scientists stepped forward with research to slow the unimaginable soil loss, and partner with local conservation districts to ensure such a disaster would never return to the Great Plains. Despite recent droughts that exceeded the severity of those during the Dust Bowl, this continued partnership between USDA and local landowners helped ensure this chapter of history did not repeat itself.
The 1930’s also saw dramatic USDA investment in rural Oklahoma’s infrastructure. While American cities had possessed electricity for decades, our nation’s electric infrastructure had bypassed rural America, and a mere 10 percent of farm homesteads had access. This was remedied by USDA partnering with local electric cooperatives to finance this essential infrastructure and bring electricity to the countryside.
As the years passed, USDA continued to partner with local communities and landowners to finance the infrastructure of a technologically evolving rural Oklahoma. Today a significant percentage of the housing, telephone systems, public water systems, sewer systems, and community facilities in rural Oklahoma are in place because of this partnership with USDA.
Recent years have produced greater technological investments on the part of USDA. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and partnerships with numerous telecommunication cooperatives, Oklahoma was among the nation’s top awardees of USDA high-speed internet investment. USDA also partners with rural schools and hospitals through its Distance Learning and Telemedicine program to connect them with the state’s top medical specialists and higher education institutions.
These investments and partnerships help ensure that Oklahoma’s farm and ranch families, as well as their small town neighbors, have access to the essential infrastructure, technology, education, and healthcare of the 21st Century.
As a man committed to progress, fascinated by new technologies, and a son of rural America, President Lincoln would be extremely proud of his creation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on this, its 150th anniversary.