Des Moines, Iowa, Jun 18, 2012 -- When President Abraham Lincoln established the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on May 15, 1862 he recognized the potential of America’s farmers and ranchers to provide a safe, ample food supply for our nation and the world.
USDA’s storied past during the last 150 years includes many Iowa connections, including current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who served as the state’s governor from 1999 to 2007. He was also elected mayor of Mount Pleasant in 1987 and served in the Iowa Senate starting in 1993.
Eight of the 30 U.S. Agriculture Secretaries have ties to Iowa.
Three former agriculture secretaries were born in Iowa including Secretaries Mike Johanns (Osage), Henry A. Wallace (near Orient) and Edwin Meredith (near Avoca). While not born in Iowa, Vilsack, Henry C. Wallace and James Wilson lived a majority of their lives in the state.
Secretaries Ezra Benson and Arthur Hyde came to Iowa to receive a portion of their education. Benson received a Master of Science in agricultural economics from what was then called Iowa State College (now Iowa State University). Hyde graduated from the University of Iowa’s law school.
Tom Vilsack was appointed by President Barack Obama as the 30th USDA Secretary and sworn into office on January 21, 2009.Vilsack recently said that his experiences in Iowa gave him an insight into the importance of agricultural exports, conservation, local and regional food systems, and the bio-based economy all needed to build a strong foundation for a revitalized rural economy.
Mike Johanns was sworn in as the 28th Secretary of the USDA on January 21, 2005.
After serving as agricultural secretary, Johanns successfully ran for a U.S. Senate seat from the state of Nebraska in 2008. Before become secretary Johanns served as the governor of Nebraska from 1999 to 2005. Johanns was raised on a dairy farm near Osage where he developed a deep respect for the land and the people who work it.
Henry A. Wallace was born near Orient, Iowa, on October 7, 1888 and graduated from Iowa State College. He then went to work at Wallaces Farmer, his family’s paper, and helped develop hybrid corn. When his father became Secretary of Agriculture, he inherited the editing of the paper.
Henry A. Wallace was Secretary of the Agriculture from March 4, 1933 until September 4, 1940. He served as Vice President of the United States from 1941 to 1945 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was also Secretary of Commerce from 1945 to 1946.
Henry C. Wallace was born in Rock Island, Illinois, on May 11, 1866, and grew up on the family farm in Iowa. He graduated from Iowa State College with a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture and later taught there.
He became interested in agricultural journalism and joined the staff of Wallaces Farmer and became its editor in 1916 when his father died. Henry C. Wallace became Secretary of Agriculture on March 5, 1921, and served until his death in office on October 25, 1924.
Edwin Meredith was born on December 23, 1876, near Avoca, Iowa. After studying at Highland Park College in Des Moines he became an agricultural journalist.
He founded Successful Farming magazine in 1902. Meredith participated in Iowa politics and served in various business and governmental positions.
Meredith was Secretary of Agriculture from February 2, 1920, to March 4, 1921. He then resumed his career in journalism. Meredith died on June 17, 1928.
James Wilson was born on August 16, 1835, in Ayrshire, Scotland, and attended what is now Grinnell College. He was elected to Iowa House of Representatives and became its speaker. Wilson then went on to represent Iowa in the U.S. Congress from 1873 to 1877 and again from 1883 to 1885.
Wilson was Secretary of Agriculture for 16 consecutive years, from March 6, 1897 to March 5, 1913. This is the longest term of any Cabinet member. Also, Wilson is still the only cabinet member to serve three presidents. He also wrote for various farm journals and was editor of the Agricultural Digest. Wilson died on August 26, 1920.
Through our work on food, agriculture, economic development, science, natural resource conservation and a host of issues, USDA still fulfills President Lincoln’s vision as ‘The People’s Department’ by touching the lives of every American, every day. As we commemorate 150 years, we will look for lessons from the past that can help us strengthen USDA in the future to address the changing needs of agriculture and rural America.
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Bill Menner was appointed USDA Rural Development State Director in Iowa in July 2009.