United States Department of Agriculture - American Education
An executive department of the government that conducts research, maintains service activities and administers regulatory laws in the broad field of agriculture. Created as a small office in 1836 to distribute plants and seeds to farmers, it became a department in 1862 and was raised to cabinet status by Congress in 1889. Its myriad functions have expanded to include research, conservation, forestry, marketing, credit, food distribution, export expansion, production controls, grading and inspection, rural development, and a wide variety of education and education-related programs. Responsible since 1946 for administration of the NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM, the department has been a major provider of education to farmers and the men, women and children of farm communities since passage of the SMITH-LEVER ACT in 1914. At the time, American agriculture was in the grip of a self-destructive process that had seen farmers deplete the soil of all its nutrients. Working in cooperation with land-grant colleges, the department established experiment stations and demonstration farms to teach farmers how to use fertilizers and pesticides and how to rotate crops.
The department’s efforts to modernize American agriculture were so successful that farms were producing enormous food surpluses when the Great Depression of the 1930s sent prices tumbling and plunged hundreds of thousands of farmers into bankruptcy. The department’s services were then reorganized to buy and store surplus foodstuffs and help maintain prices at levels high enough to make farming a viable industry. The department continues to regulate production and prices through a variety of market mechanisms.
The department’s educational functions, however, reached well beyond the bounds of commercial agriculture. In the first half of the 20th century, its extension service helped teach several generations of farm women to run their households efficiently and feed their families at minimum cost by maintaining kitchen gardens and small livestock runs for chickens, pigs and the like. Its huge publications division taught rural adults how to build every type farm structure, how to raise every kind of domestic animal, how to make and repair clothes, cook, preserve foods and conduct every conceivable activity designed to make a person self-sufficient in isolated-rural areas. In addition to adults, the department’s educational services reached millions of children through various programs such as the 4-H Clubs. Ultimately, the department reached tens of millions of rural Americans and helped teach them how to modernize American agriculture and make it the largest revenue producing industry in the United States in the years following World War II—a position it maintained as late as 1960. In the last decades of the 20th century, the department’s educative role declined somewhat as huge “agracorporations” took over the majority of American farmland from small farmers. Since 1900, when nearly half of all Americans lived on farms and ranches, the number of family-owned farms has dropped to fewer than 2 million, and the number of farms dropped from a peak of about 6.8 million in 1923 to just over 2.1 million in 2002. The demographic changes in rural America and the growth of the suburban population forced the Department of Agriculture to revamp its educational programs to include information on home design and maintenance, plant and lawn care, pet care, and the design and maintenance of flower and vegetable gardens. Of far greater import to American education today, however, is the department’s role in administering the Special Meal Assistance Program, which provides more than $7.5 billion a year in breakfasts, lunches and milk to disadvantaged children in schools across the United States.