U.S. interest in dependable agricultural statistics can be traced back to the very foundation of our country. George Washington was the first U.S. president to realize the need for reliable answers to questions like: How much grain can the United States export? How much does farmland cost to buy or lease? In his 1796 State of the Union speech, President Washington proposed a “Board of Agriculture” to find the answers to these questions.

The need for this information led to the very first U.S. agricultural survey to be conducted by George Washington himself. The survey gathered data from farmers in what is today Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and District of Columbia. Thomas Jefferson was the first survey respondent, reporting fruit and vegetable information from Monticello.  Due to European market demands, most of the farmers in those days focused on wheat, flax and corn production.

Despite the already strong presence of agriculture in the United States, the Department of Agriculture wasn’t established until nearly half a century later. In his 1861 State of the Union Address, President Abraham Lincoln proposed the creation of USDA. Because of President Lincoln’s vision for the country and the potential he saw in America’s farmers, on May 15, 1862, 150 years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was born. At that time, about half of all Americans lived on farms, compared with about 2 percent today.

Isaac Newton, who was appointed the first Commissioner of Agriculture, determined seven tasks for USDA. First on the list was “Collecting, arranging, publishing, and disseminating, for the benefit of the nation, statistical and other useful information in regard to agriculture…” To help accomplish this task, USDA formed the Division of Statistics, an early precursor to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).  A new online historical timeline traces the history of agricultural statistics and USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Today, NASS publishes over 500 reports each year detailing facts about U.S. crops, livestock and farmers. By looking at our statistical reports anyone can easily see the evolution of U.S. agriculture. Today corn and soybeans have replaced wheat and flax as the biggest crops in the United States, the broiler chicken industry rapidly expanded in the 20th century to become one of the key livestock sectors and organic farming has emerged as a new trend.

In addition to its surveys, every five years NASS conducts the Census of Agriculture, which easily shows that the production practices aren’t the only things evolving in U.S. agriculture. The face of agriculture has also greatly changed since the creation of USDA. Today, there is more racial and ethnic diversity in agriculture, as well as more women farmers than ever before. And I am sure that in the future we will see even more evolving trends. In fact, NASS is gearing up right now to conduct the 2012 Census of Agriculture, which will yet again update what we know about U.S. agriculture. So stay tuned for new developments in this phenomenal industry.