Executive Summary

Spurring Transformative Change across Rural America, USDA Results 2009-Present

Tom Vilsack
USDA Results


When I began my service as Secretary of Agriculture in 2009, I took the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nickname of the ‘People’s Department’ — first coined by President Abraham Lincoln — to heart.

President Lincoln knew the importance of agriculture to national prosperity — particularly at a time when about half of all Americans lived on the farm. He understood the critical responsibility of USDA and government to serve and support American agriculture and the rural communities who have, since the founding of our country, helped to drive innovation and economic growth on a national scale.

During the 19th Century, farmers and rural Americans helped lift up the country. During the 20th century, the hard work and success of farmers and rural Americans helped to bolster the economy and lay the foundation for the strongest nation on earth. And now again, at the beginning of the 21st Century, the unwavering productivity of farmers and rural Americans is ensuring that America continues for this century to be the freest, safest, greatest nation on earth.

Because of the strength of the agricultural sector, most Americans think that USDA’s work focuses solely on agriculture; that our service to the American people begins and ends with the production of food. But those of us who call rural America home know that there’s much more to USDA and rural America than just farms and ranches. From biobased products to rural manufacturing, the potential to grow and make innovative products in rural America is limitless.

That’s why, over the course of the Obama Administration, USDA has made targeted investments to help rural businesses grow. Through projects in affordable housing, energy efficiency and availability, clean and reliable drinking water and wastewater systems, and internet access, coupled with loans and grants for rural businesses, we’ve helped to attract and retain a talented rural labor force, improve connectivity and access to information, move products to market, and make rural communities competitive — ultimately supporting strong local economies and expanded opportunity for rural Americans.

For more than 150 years, USDA employees have served the people and places of our country that are hard to reach, off the beaten track, or otherwise underserved. As agriculture has changed and evolved over the years, we have not lost sight of Lincoln’s vision. While the number of Americans who are farmers today stands at less than one percent, USDA’s values are still rooted in rural America and service to the American people.

Our legacy of strong service and superior results continues as our work on food, agriculture, economic development, science, natural resource conservation and a host of other issues impacts millions of Americans and billions more people around the world, every day.

We have made investments to support rural places where people can start businesses, where families want to raise their children, where young people want to live. We’ve supported projects that bring needed infrastructure into rural communities and help them grow. We work with farmers and ranchers to provide nutritious, affordable food to every American family. We protect the safety of the American food supply. We battle wildfire, drought, extreme weather, and pest and disease outbreaks to ensure that our land and water resources are preserved for future generations. We work to feed our nation’s youth and help struggling families to put food on the table. We conduct cutting edge research that drives agricultural innovation. We support the international feeding programs that encourage millions of children, particularly young girls, around the world to attend school and get the nutrition they need to grow up healthy and strong. We preserve America’s forests, grasslands and open spaces for the enjoyment of American families.

To help capture the important, and oftentimes heartening, impacts that these investments have brought about in rural communities, USDA is launching a year-long, progressive storytelling effort that focuses on capturing just that — how the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Obama Administration has invested in and achieved results for farmers, ranchers, rural communities and every American.

Each month in 2016, USDA will release a new “chapter” of the story, focused on one aspect of our investment in Americans, rural and urban alike, over the past eight years.

January focuses on celebrating America’s farmers and ranchers, who ensure a safe, affordable, nutritious American food supply. Thanks to those working in American agriculture, we pay less for our food as a percentage of our wages than any other nation in the world. That means we have more money to spend on other things, which is good for our families and the nation’s economy. Thanks to the ingenuity, efficiency, and sweat of those working in American agriculture, we saw our agricultural economy remain strong and resilient, even during some tough times.

As a result of the hard work and sacrifice of farmers, ranchers and producers, Americans enjoy a rich diversity of safe and nutritious food — almost all of which comes from here in America. As a nation, we are fortunate to have the ability to grow and create virtually everything we need to survive. Our farmers, ranchers and foresters, and those in supporting industries, give us the freedom to pursue any path we choose most of us have delegated the responsibility of feeding our families to the American farmer. It’s created this great freedom for us to choose and for that we owe our farmers a debt of gratitude.

I’ve had the privilege of serving as Secretary of Agriculture for nearly eight years — the longest-serving Cabinet Secretary in the Obama Administration and one of the longest-serving Secretaries of Agriculture ever. Over the course of those nearly eight years, I’ve traveled to all 50 states and countries on nearly every continent. I’ve talked to farmers, ranchers and Americans far and wide, from all walks of life. I’ve heard from them firsthand the impact of USDA’s staff, programs and services on their lives and their legacies.

And despite differences in production methods, geography, and demographics, they all agree on one thing: innovation and opportunity are at the heart of the American agriculture success story.

As a matter of course, farmers and ranchers must constantly prepare, invent and adapt so that they’re able to meet whatever tomorrow brings head on. But the idea of rural innovation runs deeper than that. Rural America innovates and constantly strives for improvement, no matter the obstacle. It’s ingrained in the very fiber of their being, just as service is ingrained in USDA’s.Service is at the heart of what good government is and does, a motto that has guided our work over the course of the Obama Administration.

More than twenty years after I entered public service and after nearly eight years as Secretary of Agriculture, I still love my job each day. Whether improving domestic and international access to food, promoting nutrition and safety of our food supply, conserving our natural resources, advancing agricultural exports, or developing the rural economy, USDA helps Americans to lead better lives. I know that I’m not alone in the pride I take in rural America, American agriculture and what USDA employees do to make a difference in the lives of Americans every day. I’m pleased to share with you this yearlong reflection on the results achieved over the course of this Administration, and I hope you enjoy it too.