MARSHALL - As the United States Department of Agriculture celebrates its 150th year of existence this year, area agricultural leaders felt it was important to remember the organization's past and imagine where it's headed in the future. On Wednesday, a large number of USDA employees, both past and present, gathered at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) area office in Marshall to connect and share experiences with those who attended the open house.
Like a number of other agencies, the NRCS exists under the umbrella of the USDA.
"Our open house is a celebration for the entire USDA," said area soil specialist Joe Kristoff. "And 150 years is a long time. Our agency (NRCS) is within the USDA, so we just wanted to promote what we do and show how much the USDA is involved in the rural areas."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
During an open house celebration in recognition of USDA’s 150th year of existence, Marshall resident Harold Mellenthin, left, looks through resource materials and talks with Julie MacSwain, public affairs specialist at Natural Resources Conservation Service, about Minnesota’s agricultural history.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that led to USDA's creation and expanded and transformed American farming. During the next two months, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln signed additional legislation which included the Homestead Act and the establishment of the Land Grant agricultural university system.
"President Lincoln called the USDA the 'People's Department,'" state conservationist Gary Watson said. "So we wanted to have an open house for the people. Without the landowners and farmers, we wouldn't have been here for 150 years and NRCS wouldn't have been around for 75 years."
Although only 2 percent of the United States population currently live on farms, compared to about half of the population 150 years ago, the USDA still touches the lives of every American through its vast array of programs and services, keeping alive President Lincoln's vision of serving all people.
Under the USDA is the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, which includes commodity, credit, conservation, disaster and emergency assistance; Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, which involves dietary guidance, nutrition policy coordination and nutrition education; and Food Safety, which includes meat, poultry and egg inspection, food recalls, food labeling and packaging.
USDA conservation programs help farmers, ranchers and other private land- owners conserve natural resources. Early on, soil was the primary focus of NRCS.
"We promote soil conservation because we have some of the richest farm ground in the world here," Kristoff said. "It was a natural prairie before, so there are thick, dark soils here. We want to preserve them and keep them producing corn and beans."
NRCS has continued its dedication to healthy soil but has also tackled other issues, like clean water and environmental conservation.
"NRCS was born out of the Dust Bowl," Watson said. "We still provide the technical assistance to landowners."
Since 70 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned, positive stewardship is crucial to maintaining the environment, which is why the NRCS works together with farmers to develop comprehensive farm plans.
"One of our biggest concerns is soil conservation, like installing terrace and waterways," Kristoff said. "But we also help build agriculture waste systems, like sewage ponds, through our engineering. We also encourage proper disposal of pesticide containers and oil containers."
Rural Development, including financial programs, water and sewer systems, housing, health clinics, economic development, loans and lending pools, is also part of the USDA. The organization reports that it helps to create about 70,000 jobs annually in rural America, in addition to enabling 60,000 rural Americans to buy homes and assisting 720,000 low-income rural Americans rent apartments of other housing.
Along with Natural Resources and Environment, Marketing and Regulatory Programs and Research, Education and Economics divisions are also part of USDA.
"The Agriculture Research Service (ARS) is the in-house research arm of USDA," said Abdullah Jaradat, research leader at the North Central Soils Conservation Research Lab. "We research on everything you can imagine concerning food, feed and natural resources."
Since its establishment in 1958, the Morris-based lab has expanded its research to include a global perspective.
"The public invested a huge amount of trust and public funds in this lab," Jaradat said. "We're trying to do our best to serve not only the Morris community, but the state and the nation. On top of that, we have international collaborators."
The research lab, Jaradat said, continually tries to look into the future in an attempt to identify problems farmers might face.
"We look at the bigger picture," he said. "Farming is not being done in a vacuum. It is being done in contact with the larger environment. So we research how agriculture impacts the environment and how the environment impacts agriculture."
An average American family typically spends a maximum of 10 percent of their income on food, Jaradat said, compared to some families in the world that spend 50-60 percent.
"We should be really thankful to the research and the conservation arms of the USDA," Jaradat said. "One hundred and fifty years means that a nation was moved from a primitive ways and means of producing food to a most-sophisticated, highly technical and very efficient way of not only producing food, but keeping food prices affordable and conserving the natural resources upon which the food production is based."
Jaradat pointed out that efficiency is necessary in order to feed the 300-plus million people in the United States and a good part of the world.
"Our farmers have to be very efficient in order to do that," he said. "And, we send out almost $50 billion worth of agricultural exports every year. It's good for the farmers and for those who receive it at the far end."
Recently, the lab added the most important part of its research portfolio, Jaradat said, which was climate change, bio-mass and bio-energy issues.
Many of those attending the open house commented on the transformation that farming has undergone.
"The farmers now, including my son and grandson, use equipment that is way out of my league," said 87-year-old Harold Mellenthin, who has lived on his rural Marshall farm his entire life.
Measuring property and building a house, which his son and daughter-in-law will do next week on the farm, he said, has also changed.
"We used to stake and measure and stake and measure and then draw it up," Mellenthin said. "Now, they come out with a GPS, go back to town and punch it all in."
Mellenthin worked for 22 years at the Lyon County Soil District and farmed until he was 65.
"I've been here all my life," he said. "My grand-dad and his brother came on this land in 1878 and bought it for $8 an acre. We've always tried to do the best we can."
Like other agencies in Minnesota, change has also meant countless budget cuts for NRCS.
"We're like everyone else," said Watson, who has been with NRCS for 38 years. "We're trying to do more with less and trying to be conservative because we have an investment in our future."