The United States Department of Agriculture got its start in 1839 as the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office. At this time its duties were mostly restricted to collecting and distributing new varieties of seed and collecting agricultural information for the use of the government. In 1849 the Agricultural Division's parent organization, the Patent Office, was moved under the control of the Department of the Interior. Repeated requests from inside the Division led, on May 15th, 1862, to the creation of the USDA by President Abraham Lincoln. At the time of its creation it did not have Cabinet status.
By the 1880s, US citizens had begun to lobby for the USDA to be granted a place in the Cabinet. 1887 saw the first attempt by the House of Representatives to pass a bill to raise it to Cabinet status, though as the Department of Agriculture and Labor. The attachment of Labor to the bill, however, sparked complaints from farmers, and the bill was dropped. On February 9th, 1889 the bill to raise the Department of Agriculture to the Cabinet was finally signed into law by President Grover Cleveland.
In 1914 the USDA was involved in expanding extant agriculture experiment stations, which existed in each state. These stations were expanded by the Smith-Lever Act to educate the public in each state about agriculture, home economics and other issues central to their lives. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the USDA was heavily involved in aiding small farmers keep afloat in the treacherous economic waters, as well as ensuring that food continued to be produced in the United States. They were also involved in the education of youths living in rural areas.
Since the early days of its existence, and into the 1990s, the USDA had been the target of allegations of racism. These allegations have claimed that the USDA refused to support African-American farmers, denying them loans and access to the other services offered to white farmers by the Department. This came to a head in 1999, when a class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, was launched against the USDA. The lawsuit was settled out of court, and to date the USDA has paid almost US$1 billion to African-American farmers who were denied loans or otherwise affected by the racist policies. A similar lawsuit was launched in 2004, but failed after the plaintiff was unable to demonstrate standing.
Currently the USDA is involved in issues of food production and distribution throughout the States, as well as providing nutritional information through the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. It is also involved in the production of food for international sale, or for distribution to developing countries, often through USAID or some other charitable organization.
Currently, the USDA is headquartered at 1301 Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. It is administered by the Secretary of Agriculture, and currently employs around 106,000 people. It has an estimated budget of around US$132.3 billion