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Celebrating 90-Plus Years of USDA’s International Activities

Asher Hobson in Rome, who six years later would become the first head of the Foreign Agricultural Service.

Asher Hobson in Rome, who six years later would become the first head of the Foreign Agricultural Service.

The modern Foreign Service is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, as is the American Foreign Service Association. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Foreign Service Act into law, combining the United States diplomatic and consular services to create the United States Foreign Service. By that time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had already been posting employees overseas for 42 years.

Thanks to President Coolidge’s curiosity, we possess a rare snapshot of USDA international activities in 1924. On December 22 of that year, Coolidge, in his characteristically laconic style, sent a one-line letter to Secretary of Agriculture Howard Gore: “I shall appreciate it if you will send me as soon as possible a list of the representatives the Department may have abroad, their posts and just what they are doing.”  Surviving copies of urgent correspondence in the National Archives in College Park testify to the flurry of activity that ensued over the next two weeks as a data call went out to all USDA field offices.

According to Secretary Gore’s response, USDA had 21 American staff in field positions, plus another nine on temporary duty abroad.  Among the permanent postings were Asher Hobson in Rome, who six years later would become the first head of the Foreign Agricultural Service; Elna Anderson in Berlin, the first professional female USDA employee posted abroad; Edward Foley in London, accompanied by two compatriots researching the British market and promoting international cotton standards; and Dr. Severin Fladness, a veterinarian posted to Mexico City to negotiate market access for live bulls for breeding.

Bertram Gray and Laurence Bolts were in Haiti researching rubber production.  Entomologists Curtis Clauson and H.A. Jaynes were in Yokohama and Shanghai, respectively, obtaining natural parasites of the Japanese beetle; and Dr. William H. Thompson was head of the Bureau of Entomology’s insect laboratory in Hyeres, France, the direct predecessor of the Agricultural Research Service’s European Biological Control Laboratory at Montpellier, France.  In work presaging the broad U.S.-Mexican collaboration of today’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Walter Ohlendorf of USDA’s Federal Horticultural Board was in Tlahualilo researching the pink bollworm of cotton.

The broad international interests of American agriculture and USDA are evident in the scope of the workload in 1924. Then, just as now, areas like market research, promotion of international standards, germplasm collection, market access, and control of pests and diseases were priorities for USDA. Ninety years later, USDA remains on the job around the world.

Today FAS foreign service officers are stationed in 75 countries around the world and the outlook for U.S. agricultural exports has never been better.  American Agricultural exports are projected to reach $149.5 billion, an estimated $6.9 billion higher than expected, for fiscal year 2014.  If that happens, it will set a new record.  Last fiscal year, agricultural exports reached $140.9 billion and supported nearly one million jobs here at home. Fiscal Years 2009 to 2013 represent the strongest five years in history for agricultural trade, with U.S. agricultural product exports totaling $619 billion over those five years.  It indicates that the volume of U.S. agricultural exports has increased, which demonstrates an increasing global appetite for high-quality, American-grown products.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at an event celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the United States Foreign Service at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 22, 2014. The modern Foreign Service was created on May 24, 1924. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at an event celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the United States Foreign Service at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 22, 2014. The modern Foreign Service was created on May 24, 1924. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.

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