What is the Department of Agriculture (USDA)?

Monday, August 22, 2022

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) engages with various topics such as animals, conservation, farming, plants, and urban agriculture. Since its inception in 1862, USDA has added new priorities, such as addressing climate change and promoting sustainability in different facets. USDA is also making strides in modernizing by embracing new information technology practices and encouraging fluency in coding languages.

History, Mission, and Organization

President Lincoln created USDA in 1862, referring to it as “The People’s Department”, but its history goes even further back. The Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture was first founded in 1785, and the House and Senate Agriculture Committees were created in 1820 and 1825, respectively. Lincoln wanted USDA to act as an extension agent, disseminating information on agriculture.

Isaac Newton, who had served as the Chief of the Agricultural Section of the Patent Office, became the USDA’s first Commissioner of Agriculture. Newton established six objectives for the agency:

  1. Collecting, arranging, and publishing statistical and other useful agricultural information
  2. Introducing valuable plants and animals; answering inquiries of farmers regarding agriculture
  3. Testing agricultural implements
  4. Conducting chemical analyses of soils, grains, fruits, plants, vegetables, and manures
  5. Establishing a professorship of botany and entomology
  6. Establishing an agricultural library and museum

Historically USDA has been involved in the passing of numerous programs that directly benefit Americans, such as the 1946 National School Lunch Act, 1964 Food Stamp Act and War on Poverty, and 1970 Environmental Quality Improvement Act. The 1936 Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act connected farm programs with conservation.

Today USDA continues to provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and more based on public policy, science, and effective management.

Its mission is “to serve all Americans by providing effective, innovative, science-based public policy leadership in agriculture, food and nutrition, natural resource protection and management, rural development, and related issues with a commitment to delivering equitable and climate-smart opportunities that inspire and help America thrive.”

Mission Areas:

  • Farm Production and Conservation
  • Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services
  • Food Safety
  • Marketing and Regulatory Programs
  • Natural Resources and Environment 
  • Research, Education, and Economics 
  • Rural Development
  • Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs

USDA’s evolved vision for the U.S. is “an equitable and climate-smart food and agriculture economy that protects and improves the health, nutrition, and quality of life of all Americans, yields healthy land, forests and clean water, helps rural America thrive, and feeds the world.”

The following are Cross-Agency Strategic Priorities in line with both USDA and the current Administration: 

  • Advancing Racial Justice, Equity, and Opportunity
  • Addressing Climate Change
  • Tackling Food and Nutrition Insecurity
  • More, Better, and New Market Opportunities

Today USDA is made up of 29 agencies and 16 staff offices. There are 100,000 employees who serve the American people at more than 4,500 locations, domestic and international. 

USDA in Action

Below are some notable projects USDA has taken on in pursuit of its mission recently: 

Vertical Farming: USDA is focused on addressing the rising food demand and limited natural resources by sustainably increasing food production; a newer method of growing food, vertical farming, has shown to be a promising option. Vertical farming allows farmers to grow plants indoors and year-round because the facilities are light, temperature, water, and carbon dioxide controlled. By reducing distribution chains, vertical farming can result in more local small farms, lower emissions, higher-nutrient production, and reduced water usage. USDA and the Department of Energy (DOE) held a stakeholder workshop in 2018 to learn how to successfully implement vertical farming techniques to achieve these desired goals. USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has funding opportunities related to vertical farming, and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is working to increase tomato production and quality in greenhouses. Vertical farming is relevant to the technology and agriculture industries, and more opportunities to engage with vertical farming are expected. 

Food System Transformation: Back in June 2022, USDA announced a $43.1M dollar investment in urban agriculture which includes $10.2M in new cooperative agreements to expand compost and food waste reduction efforts and $14.2M in new grants to support the development of urban agriculture and innovative production projects. These investments build on USDA’s Food Systems Transformation Framework.

Soil Sensors: Mechanized forest operations can cause soil properties to change, possibly negatively impacting the area’s sustainability and forest productivity. To assess and prevent this, USDA is measuring machine forces exerted during forest operations and linking them to soil responses. These soil sensors, developed by the Forest Service (FS), allow scientists to fully understand the extent to which soil is affected by forest machinery, which was a former blind spot in sustainability. The inexpensive sensors are made up of a rubber bulb and hydraulic hose connected to a pressure transducer that emits an electrical signal in response to machine-induced stress and records the output. Scientists found that the amount of pressure needed to reach maximum stress depends on the machine and soil, giving consistent results with multiple trials. This technology will eventually be able to predict stress impacts under different soil conditions.  

CropScape: CropScape is an electronic platform designed and maintained by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and ARS that was originally created to provide acreage estimates to the Agricultural Statistics Board for major commodities and to produce digital, crop-specific, categorized geo-referenced output products. Its features now include the CropLand Data Layer, a geospatial data product that provides satellite imagery to see crop health. CropScape utilizes moderate-resolution satellite imagery and extensive agricultural ground truth to assemble crop-specific data in the U.S. Free and available to the public, the CropScape web application allows users to geolocate farms and map areas of interest. 

Rural Partners Network (RPN): The Rural Partners Network is an association of federal agencies, staff, and programs designed to benefit rural communities. RPN was started by USDA Rural Development (RD) and is now led by USDA and the White House Domestic Policy Council. The program encourages inclusive and sustainable economic growth through job creation, infrastructure development, and community improvement. RPN is intended to increase equitable access to federal programs and funding by targeted staffing, tools, and resources. Rural areas are given more direct access to the federal government to assist in identifying and acquiring economically beneficial opportunities ranging from individual jobs to agency-wide contracts. RPN is made up of 16 federal agencies and regional commissions through the Rural Prosperity Interagency Policy Council including the Department of Commerce (DOC), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Labor (DOL), Small Business Administration (SBA), and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) among the participants. 

Contract Procurement, Acquisition, and Grants

The Office of Contracting and Procurement (OCP) serves the Secretary and USDA mission areas by providing oversight, policy, guidance, and coordination of acquisition planning, contracting, and execution. OCP is under USDA’s Departmental Administration (DA) and is made up of three procurement divisions:

Procurement Operations Division (POD): provides guidance to USDA agencies on Department-wide acquisitions to ensure efficiency, cost-effectiveness, integrity, and fairness throughout the acquisition cycle.

Procurement Policy Division (PPD): oversees USDA-wide procurement policy and regulations, such as the Agriculture Acquisition Regulation (AGAR) and the USDA Contracting Desk Book. PPD also leads acquisition workforce management and contract-related reporting to external agencies.

Procurement Systems Division (PSD): supports USDA’s acquisition community, particularly for Purchase and Fleet Cards.

Altogether, OCP oversees $9B in annual obligations.

Recent Contracts

The following awards are recent examples of the types of products and services USDA acquires through contracts. 

Modernize Network and IT Services: USDA awarded Lumen Technologies an initial one-year term task order, with ten one-year extension options, to utilize its fully integrated wide area data transport service.  Under this contract, Lumen is providing secure remote access, a contact center, and data connectivity at 9,500 USDA locations. In pursuit of transforming farming into precision agriculture, this acquisition will assist in managing important farming, food and nutrition, forestry, and rural economic development services. This $1.2B contract was awarded in January 2022 under GSA’s Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) program, and work begins in September 2022.

Road Brushing: BW Enterprises, LLC won a contract in June 2022 for road maintenance on Zarembo Island, located in Tongass National Forest, Alaska. The island is only accessible by boat or plane. BW Enterprises will be road brushing, or removing vegetation, from 45.7 miles of surfaced road. The $121K contract was a Total Small Business Set-Aside.

ARS Woodward Embankment Rehabilitation: In July 2022, C-P Integrated Services Inc. won a Total Small-Business Set Aside contract valued at $8.5M. C-P Integrated Services Inc. will update the ARS Field Station Dam in Woodward County, Oklahoma to meet current high hazard criteria. The dam is a single-purpose earth fill embankment with a 14.1 square mile drainage area constructed in 1937 that was reclassified as a high hazard. The contracted work includes boring and jacking a new spillway pipe through the existing dam, building a new principal spillway tower and roller compacted concrete auxiliary spillway, fixing concrete work, and clearing designated areas.

Dental Services: The USDA FS acquired on-site dental services for the Timber Lake Job Corps Center in Estacada, Oregon. The dentist services include dental assistants and dental hygienists, each working six to eight hours per week. Dental Power International, Inc. won this $389K firm-fixed-price award organized as one base year with the option to extend four times. 

Peanut Shellers with Runner Grids: The ARS needed to acquire six peanut shellers with runner grids. There were specific requirements for the shellers, such as top loading, belt driver shaker, 110 Voltage, and the ability to process Virginia and Spanish market types. The shellers must be delivered to Stillwater, Oklahoma 30 days after the award is made. The contract was won by Georgia Federal-State Shipping Point Inspection Service, Inc. for $39.5K; the decision was based on Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA). 

Laboratory Office Renovations: Medvolt, LLC won a $104K Total Small Business Set-Aside contract in August 2022 to renovate five laboratory offices. This contract also utilized LPTA. The ARS oversaw this acquisition, and the offices are located at the USDA Center for Grain and Animal Health Research in Manhattan, Kansas. The job includes electrical, demolition, air duct, and carpentry work. 

Contract Spending and Grant Trends

As shown above, federal contract work is largely awarded to companies located in California, Texas, and Virginia. Below are a few key data points for USDA contracting spending from FY17 to FY21: 

Top 10 U.S. Federal Contractors:

  • Tyson Foods, Inc.
  • Cargill, Inc.
  • Goodman Food Products
  • Stutz Packing Company
  • Del Monte Foods, Inc.
  • Accenture Federal Services LLC
  • Lakeside Foods, Inc.
  • Archer-Daniels-Midland Company
  • Produce Alliance, LLC
  • Leprino Foods Dairy Products Company

Top 10 Awarding Sub-Agencies:

  • Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)
  • Forest Service (FS)
  • Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OFCO)
  • Farm Service Agency (FSA)
  • Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
  • Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)
  • Rural Housing Service (RHS)
  • Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services
  • Food and Nutrition Service (FNS)
  • Federal Acquisition Service (FAS)

Top 10 PSC Codes:

  • 8915: Fruits and Vegetables
  • 8905: Meat, Poultry, and Fish
  • F003: Natural Resources/Conservation – Forest-Range Fire Suppression/Presuppression
  • 8945: Food, Oils and Fats
  • 8910: Dairy Foods and Eggs
  • D399: IT and Telecom – Other IT and Telecommunications 
  • 8920: Bakery and Cereal Products
  • R499: Support – Professional: Other
  • 7030: Information Technology Software
  • D318: IT and Telecom – Integrated Hardware/Software/Services Solutions, Predominantly Services

Top 10 NAICS:

  • 311999: All Other Miscellaneous Food Manufacturing 
  • 311611: Animal (except Poultry) Slaughtering
  • 541512: Computer Systems Design Services
  • 115310: Support Activities for Forestry
  • 541519: Other Computer Related Services
  • 311421: Fruit and Vegetable Canning
  • 311991: Perishable Prepared Food Manufacturing
  • 311615: Poultry Processing
  • 311513: Cheese Manufacturing
  • 481212: Nonscheduled Chartered Freight Air Transportation

As shown above, USDA obligates more dollars in grants than contracts each year, mainly due to the large scope of assistance the USDA provides to Americans. The majority of grants are awarded by FNS.

Top Grant Recipients (FY17-FY21):

  • California Department of Education 
  • Texas Department of Agriculture
  • Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services 
  • New York State Education Department 
  • California Department of Social Services
  • Illinois State Board of Education
  • California Department of Public Health
  • Georgia Department of Education 
  • Pennsylvania Department of Education 
  • Ohio Department of Education

The majority of grant work is performed in California, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Top CFDA Programs (FY17-FY21):

  • 10.555: National School Lunch Program 
  • 10.557: WIC Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children 
  • 10.561: State Administrative Matching Grants for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • 10.760: Water and Waste Disposal Systems for Rural Communities 
  • 10.558: Child and Adult Care Food Program
  • 10.560: State Administrative Expenses for Child Nutrition 
  • 10.203: Payments to Agricultural Experiment Stations Under the Hatch Act
  • 10.310: Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) 
  • 10.855: Distance Learning and Telemedicine Loans and Grants 
  • 10.511: Smith-Lever Funding (Various Programs)

USDA in 2023 and Beyond

The FY23 Budget Request is seeking $195.9B for USDA, a $10.2B decrease from FY2021. The chart below shows the anticipated FY2023 mandatory and discretionary outlays, with “All Other” referring to Rural Development, Research, Food Safety, Marketing, and Regulatory, and Departmental Management.

Highlights of the budget request include:

  • $2.7B to mitigate wildfire risk, an increase of $751M since FY21
  • $10.7B to fund 33,000 farm loans for operating expenses, refinance debt, or farm acquisition
  • $6.1B in loan authority for rural electric loans, which increased by $1B from FY21
  • ​​$111.2B for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • $28.6B for Child Nutrition Programs,
  • $6B for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

The FY23 budget request is driven by USDA’s priorities outlined in their Strategic Plan for FY22-FY26 and their Learning Agenda, which identifies and addresses priority questions related to the programs, policies, and regulations of the Department in order to comprehensively assess the capacity to address the research and analysis efforts. In their Learning Agenda, USDA proposes ten priority questions across three categories intended to drive USDA’s mission:

  • Rural Development: What are the short- and long-term economic and social impacts of Rural Development programs, including indirect and spillover effects? How effective are existing Rural Development initiatives in improving equitable program access to historically disadvantaged and underserved communities? How can Rural Development more effectively partner and leverage its resources to increase investments in rural communities from other government entities, the private sector, and philanthropies? 
  • Food and Nutrition: How effective are FNS programs in addressing the food hardship crisis caused by COVID-19 and supporting the transition to post-pandemic nutrition program operations? To what extent is racial equity incorporated into internal FNS operations and the design and administration of Federal nutrition assistance programs? How effective are FNS’s strategies in eliminating barriers to access to nutrition assistance programs? How effective are FNS’s programs in improving nutrition security through access to nutritious foods? What program innovations are most effective in strengthening Federal oversight and management of Federal nutrition assistance programs to further improve the integrity, accountability, and customer service?
  • Farm Production and Conservation: At the borrower level, what economic factors impact Farm Loan Program demand, delinquencies, and other risks? What conservation practices are most effective in delivering climate benefits?

The USDA’s most recent Capacity Assessment provides overall recommendations for the agency to improve. These include streamlining data collection and reducing the burden on customers, increasing programming language proficiency among statisticians, and centralizing information technology structures to improve data access.

USDA is already making strides in improving its IT practices and accessibility; it has saved $10M by eliminating duplicative platforms and license costs and boasts 150 internal and publicly available data sources.

USDA is also experimenting with blockchain technology to improve food quality and access. These recommendations will likely result in new acquisitions over the next few years, in addition to those focusing on expanding sustainability and responding to climate change.

Another item to watch in FY23 are the programs funded by the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also called the 2018 Farm Bill. These programs are funded through FY23 so a new version of the bill is expected in the coming fiscal year. The focus areas of the current Farm Bill are commodity programs, conservation, trade, nutrition programs, credit, rural development, research and related matters, forestry, energy, horticulture, and crop insurance. 

Researched and authored by Haley Boulanger, Pulse Analyst.

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