If it's on your dinner plate, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had a hand in getting it there. The USDA oversees matters related to the nation's agricultural industry and food supply. Its main mission is to assist America's farmers and ranchers, provide outreach and education to the public, and help secure trade agreements to expand agricultural exports. Among its numerous functions, it provides training and scientific resources to farmers, awards grants, monitors food safety, operates the Forest Service, and aids federal decision-making processes related to agricultural regulations and trade policies.
USDA's mission is to empower and revitalize farms, ranches, and rural communities. It provides supporting innovative research and gives farmers and ranchers access to international markets through market development programs, trade shows, and by assisting in the negotiation of trade agreements to benefit US agricultural producers.
It is also pushing for collaboration between Federal, State, and local governments, and private sector, non-profit community, and educational institutions to help develop regional strategies and coalitions to support the growth of agriculture-based local communities.
In 2011 the organization's more than 100,000 employees delivered $188.7 billion in public services through more than 300 programs worldwide.
In addition to serving rural communities across the US, USDA pursues export opportunities and conducts trade agreements worldwide. In 2011 the organization was placing an emphasis on expanding export opportunities in Chile, China, and Japan.
In 2011 US agricultural exports reached an all-time high ($137.4 billion) a 27% increase over 2010. Aided by market-expanding trade agreements, agricultural exports have grown by 14% per year since 2006. In 2011 USDA's budget was $214.5 billion (5% down from 2010). However, its net outlays stood at $145.5 billion, 7% up on 2010. The increase in outlays was primarily due to an $8.3 billion increase at its Food and Nutrition Service for the Commodity Assistance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, and the Women, Infants and Children Program and a $1.6 billion increase at Risk Managment Agency for indemnities paid.
The organization's net costs jumped 12% in 2011, largely due to a 36 % increase in costs related to its rural community assistance programs.
USDA's long term strategy is focused on four broad initiatives: Assisting rural communities to become self sustaining and profitable; Preserving and improving National Forests and private lands, while upgrading water supply and quality; Helping promote agricultural and biotechnology exports; and ensuring that all children in the US have access to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals.
In 2012 USDA and the Department of Energy announced investments in 13 biofuel and feedstock projects for $214.5 billion. It also announced funding for 13 partnership agreements for wetland restoration and conservation work in 12 states.
In 2009 Tom Vilsack was confirmed as Secretary of USDA by the Senate. Vilsack, a two-term governor of Iowa, is a strong supporter of ethanol and has a reputation as an advocate for Iowa's agricultural industry. He was appointed by President Barack Obama.
USDA was founded in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, who called it "the people's department."