The USDA by the Numbers

I previously posted on a paper I wrote entitled "The Evolving Role of the USDA in the Food and Agricultural Economy."  Today I'll cover some of the figures and tables that describe the USDA and how it has changed.   

Today, the USDA engages in numerous activities. The department has 17 different agencies, 18 different offices, and the agencies are organized under seven politically appointed under-secretaries (see here for a description the agencies and offices and here for an organizational chart).  Many (but not all) USDA activities are authorized by the farm bill, the most recent of which is the Agricultural Act of 2014. The 2014 Farm Bill has 12 major sections (or titles). 

Since the 1960s there has been a sharp increase in USDA spending. Most of that increase has been driven by spending on food and nutrition assistance (primarily "food stamps"). Of total USDA outlays in 2014, over 70 percent went toward food and nutrition assistance. Real spending on agricultural research slowly increased from the 1960s and experienced a sharp jump in the first few years of the 21st century. Since that time, research funding has declined in real terms and fell back in 2014 to the pre-2000 levels (full disclosure, some of my research and salary is funded by these USDA research expenditures). Spending on farm income stabilization varies from year to year, but it has hovered around $20 billion in recent years.

Below is the same data expressed as a percent of the total federal budget (note that the copy editors got the scale of the axis wrong - there is an extra "0" where there shouldn't be; the scale should range from 0% to 7%).

From 1980 until 2009, total federal spending increased at a faster rate than did USDA spending, leading to a fall in the share of spending attributable to the USDA. Since that time, USDA spending has outpaced total federal spending because of increases in food and nutrition assistance. In 2014, the USDA was responsible for about 4% of total federal spending.

Figure 10 shows a breakdown of the USDA budgetary authority for 2014. The department was authorized to spend $161 billion, with 66.6 percent allocated to the Food and Nutrition Service, which is responsible for administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The next-largest spending categories in 2014 were the Risk Management Agency (i.e., crop insurance) and the Commodity Credit Corporation.  The Commodity Credit Corporation is the mechanism through which the USDA pays out farm subsidies associated with price and income support programs, Conservation Reserve Program payments, and payments for export promotion programs. The Agricultural Marketing Service Section 32 funds (representing customs receipts allocated to support the farm sector; in recent years, most of those funds have been transferred to the childhood nutrition account) and the Forest Service account for 5.5 percent and 3.3 percent of the USDA budget, respectively. All other agencies individually account for 2 percent or less of total USDA spending.

As a basis for comparison, and to illustrate how the USDA has changed over time, figure 11 shows a breakdown of the USDA budgetary authority in 2006, when the department was authorized to spend only $100 billion (that's in 2006 dollars despite what the title says; covered to 2014 dollars its about $117 billion). The Food and Nutrition Service accounted for only 53.7 percent in 2006 compared with 66.6 percent in 2014. The Commodity Credit Corporation played a much larger role in the USDA budget in 2006 than in 2014, with the opposite being true of the Risk Management Agency.

In 2010, the USDA had 106,867 employees. If one disregards employment by the Defense Department (and Veterans Affairs) and the US Postal Service, USDA employees account for just under 10 percent of all federal employees.

In 1955, there were about 85,500 USDA employees and 4.78 million farms, implying about 1.8 USDA employees for every 100 farms in the United States. The number of USDA employees per farm grew sharply until the 1980s, when there were 6.4 employees per 100 farms. Since that time, the number of USDA employees has fallen slightly, with an uptick in 2010, the last year for which data are available. In 2010, there were 5 USDA employees for every 100 farms in the United States (of course not all USDA employees work on farm issues).