Opinions & sacred cows: USDA celebrates 150 Years
By Ron Goble
Is Isaac Newton known for the development of the Fig Newton? Or is he known for his role as the first Commissioner of Agriculture for the USDA? If you guessed the latter, you’re right. And no, this is not Sir Isaac Newton, known for his study of gravity after – as legend would tell it – he observed an apple fall from a tree in his backyard in England.
This Isaac Newton, a Quaker and Pennsylvania farmer, was appointed to the agriculture position by President Abraham Lincoln, who established the USDA on May 15, 1862 – that’s 150 years ago!
A lot of what the USDA is today we owe to Newton. He listed seven original objectives in his first report as head of the new ag department. Those objectives were:
1) Collecting, arranging, and publishing statistical and other useful agricultural information.
2) Introducing valuable plants and animals.
3) Answering inquiries of farmers regarding agriculture.
4) Testing agricultural implements.
5) Conducting chemical analyses of soils, grains, fruits, plants, vegetables and manures.
6) Establishing a professorship of botany and entomology.
7) Establishing an ag library and museum.
The best example of No. 1 on Newton’s list is the “Dairy Statistics & Trends” you’ll find on pages DS1-16 in this issue of Western DairyBusiness. Practically every statistic relevant to the dairy industry is sourced from the USDA.
Since Newton’s day, the USDA has vastly increased its reach into areas relative to dairy. In an effort to improve the quality of American dairy products and to make them more acceptable abroad, USDA established the Division of Agrostology and the Dairy Division in 1895. Scientists studied the effects of forage grasses on the flavor, odor, and quality of milk and milk products.
The early work of the Dairy Division consisted primarily of collecting and disseminating information. In addition to education, regulations were put in place to ensure a safe food supply. In 1916, the USDA leased the Grove City Creamery in Grove City, Pa. There the Dairy Division conducted experiments on the manufacturing of butter, condensed milk, cheeses and other dairy products.
Today, we rely on numerous USDA agencies to serve agriculture and the dairy industry. But probably the most significant is the work conducted by the Agriculture Research Service (ARS).
ARS has impacted every aspect of agriculture, including dairy. In 1917, USDA started a long-term dairy herd improvement program that has led to tremendous increase in milk production. The program continues today under ARS. Groundbreaking animal research outlined in a recent issue of USDA’s Agricultural Research magazine, includes inventing highly sophisticated breeding techniques and tools. ARS researchers developed, patented and licensed the Beltsville Sperm Sexing Technology.
More recent achievements include working with industry and university partners to develop genomic methods used to analyze cattle DNA to identify bulls that produce offspring with optimum milk production and other traits.
Today, USDA continues to fulfill Newton’s original objectives and many more. ARS is particularly involved in objectives 2,4,5, and 7. Looking back, after 150 years we can say the vision of Lincoln and Newton laid the foundation for programs that have benefited farmers, ranchers and dairy producers worldwide.
Happy Anniversary, USDA!
Have an opinion? E-mail Ron Goble: firstname.lastname@example.org