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Focus on Agriculture

May 15, 2012

U.S. Marks 150th Anniversary of the Department of Agriculture

By President Barack Obama

One hundred fifty years ago this week, as the Civil War raged and the fate of our union was in doubt, President Lincoln established what he called the “People’s Department.”

Lincoln was raised on rural land in my home state of Illinois. He understood the importance of farming to the American way of life. And he knew the agency he had founded – the Department of Agriculture – would play a role unlike any other in shaping the lives of everyday Americans.

When the USDA opened its doors for the first time, almost half of Americans identified themselves as farmers. A century and a half later, less than one percent do. But even as revolutions in technology have reshaped the American landscape, agriculture remains a cornerstone of our economy and our way of life. It continues to be one of the most important tools we have to make sure that all of our children, no matter what they look like or where they come from, can go as far as their dreams and hard work will take them.

Today, Americans enjoy the most abundant and safest food supply anywhere in the world. As a portion of our take-home pay, we spend less than 10 percent of our earnings on groceries – compared to more than 20 percent in most developed nations, and up to half in developing nations. As a result, families are able to put more of their income towards everything from starting a businesses and buying a house to saving for college and planning for retirement.

Rural America plays a critical role in guaranteeing security for Americans all across the country. And today, that role is more important than ever. As we recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we can’t go back to an economy built on outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits. We need an economy built to last; an economy built on the things we make and produce – on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and, yes, American agriculture.

Last year, agriculture was responsible for more than $137 billion in export sales – an all-time record. Farm products represented a trade surplus of more than $43 billion. And the agricultural industry supported more than 1 million American jobs.

That’s good news. But we still have a long way to go to make sure that America’s agricultural industry is healthy for years to come. At the end of World War II, the average age of an American farmer was 39 years old. Today, it’s almost 60. For years, our rural communities have been under severe economic strain – both from the effects of the recession, and from the difficulties of dealing with a shrinking and aging population.

That’s why my Administration launched the White House Rural Council to provide rural Americans with the resources and support they need to grow. And that’s why I’ve also kept the pressure on Congress to pass a Farm Bill this year that includes a safety net for farmers when weather disasters strike, or when prices fluctuate beyond their control. This bill should also include provisions to help young Americans who are interested in farming get established. And we need to keep supporting innovation and research, so that American farming can continue to lead the world.

Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States.