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What is the US Secretary of Agriculture?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The United States Secretary of Agriculture is the head of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the government agency which deals with American food policy. In addition to setting and enforcing policies designed to protect the safety and security of American food, the USDA also helps to manage natural resources, offers educational outreach programs for farmers and gardeners, and manages the Food Stamp Program.

This head of this agency has had a Cabinet-level position since 1889, when the farming lobby successfully pushed a bill through Congress which promoted the US Secretary of Agriculture to the Presidential Cabinet. As with other Cabinet officials, the US Secretary of Agriculture is appointed by the President, but he or she is subject to confirmation hearings, as are the Undersecretaries who assist the US Secretary of Agriculture. By tradition, the US Secretary of Agriculture is usually replaced within the first few months of a new Presidential administration.

As a member of the Presidential Cabinet, the US Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for keeping the President apprised of emerging issues in American agriculture, and for making policy recommendations to the President. At Cabinet meetings and briefings, the Secretary must be able to concisely and clearly outline what is going on in the Department of Agriculture, ranging from refining the standards for organic certification to signing off on proposed timber harvest plans submitted by the United States Forest Service, a branch of the USDA.

The USDA oversees food safety and inspections, experimental farming projects, stockyards, inspection of foreign agricultural products, nutrition research, a national library of farming-related materials, and ongoing studies which are designed to improve the efficiency of American farming. The USDA's extensive duties reflect America's very agrarian history, and the fact that farming is still a critical source of income in many regions of the United States, although the traditional small farms have been largely replaced by industrial operations. Food security is also critical to the well-being of the United States, since a nation cannot thrive without adequate food supplies.

In the Presidential line of succession, the US Secretary of Agriculture is ninth, which makes it unlikely that a Secretary of Agriculture will ever need to assume the Presidency. Secretaries tend to come from agriculture-heavy states like Iowa, Missouri, California, Kansas, Nebraska, and Idaho, and their experience in the American agriculture industry varies considerably. As with other Cabinet positions, the US Secretary of Agriculture tends to be someone who supports the political goals and aims of the President, like Henry Wallace, a progressive reformer who worked under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help the American economy recover in the wake of the Great Depression.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Comparables — On Dec 31, 2010

@ PelesTears- The legislation that was just passed also provided provisions for Native Americans who were cheated out of billions of dollars by the secretary of interior and the interior department. The department unfairly compensated Native Americans for mineral, timber, and petroleum resources mined on reservation land.

Don't get me wrong...I love this country, but sometimes parts of American History make me sick. The United States Government rounded up, slaughtered, and herded Native Americans across the land on the trail of tears. They were given plots of "worthless" land that they were told would be their own, land-locked nations. Once it was found that there was the slightest bit of valuable resources underneath the land, the government contracts the mining of the resources, yet withholds billions in royalties. Horrible.

By ValleyFiah — On Dec 30, 2010

@ PelesTears- This fund was long overdue (much like the fund for 9/11 emergency responders) and it stems from cases of the USDA blatantly denying black farmers agriculture loans based solely on the color of their skin. The original class action case was brought against the USDA (Pigford v. Glickman), and was won by the black farmers in 1999. The original settlement was for somewhere around 2 billion dollars. The case was mired with controversy however, because some 80,000 black farmers were denied their right to sue in the original lawsuit.

Now, eleven years later, the last of the farmers who were chased out of agriculture have been duly compensated for their hardships. For the most part, the bill received bipartisan support, but a few fringe congressional representatives (notably Rep. King (R) Iowa) used the decision to claim that the president uses his power to unfairly support African Americans by "introducing legislation to create a whole new Pigford claim".

By PelesTears — On Dec 29, 2010

What is the deal with the Black Farmers and Naive Americans that just received a settlement fund by the government? I am interested in learning about what this deal was for, and why it was such a stain on the USDA for so many years. It must have been before my time, because I have no idea what the controversy is all about. I heard that the deal is long overdue, and it stems from some type of discrimination, but that is the extent of what I know. Can someone give me a little back-story on this popular headline?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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