The United States Secretary of Agriculture is the head of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the government agency which deals with American food policy. In addition to setting and enforcing policies designed to protect the safety and security of American food, the USDA also helps to manage natural resources, offers educational outreach programs for farmers and gardeners, and manages the Food Stamp Program.
This head of this agency has had a Cabinet-level position since 1889, when the farming lobby successfully pushed a bill through Congress which promoted the US Secretary of Agriculture to the Presidential Cabinet. As with other Cabinet officials, the US Secretary of Agriculture is appointed by the President, but he or she is subject to confirmation hearings, as are the Undersecretaries who assist the US Secretary of Agriculture. By tradition, the US Secretary of Agriculture is usually replaced within the first few months of a new Presidential administration.
As a member of the Presidential Cabinet, the US Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for keeping the President apprised of emerging issues in American agriculture, and for making policy recommendations to the President. At Cabinet meetings and briefings, the Secretary must be able to concisely and clearly outline what is going on in the Department of Agriculture, ranging from refining the standards for organic certification to signing off on proposed timber harvest plans submitted by the United States Forest Service, a branch of the USDA.
The USDA oversees food safety and inspections, experimental farming projects, stockyards, inspection of foreign agricultural products, nutrition research, a national library of farming-related materials, and ongoing studies which are designed to improve the efficiency of American farming. The USDA's extensive duties reflect America's very agrarian history, and the fact that farming is still a critical source of income in many regions of the United States, although the traditional small farms have been largely replaced by industrial operations. Food security is also critical to the well-being of the United States, since a nation cannot thrive without adequate food supplies.
In the Presidential line of succession, the US Secretary of Agriculture is ninth, which makes it unlikely that a Secretary of Agriculture will ever need to assume the Presidency. Secretaries tend to come from agriculture-heavy states like Iowa, Missouri, California, Kansas, Nebraska, and Idaho, and their experience in the American agriculture industry varies considerably. As with other Cabinet positions, the US Secretary of Agriculture tends to be someone who supports the political goals and aims of the President, like Henry Wallace, a progressive reformer who worked under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help the American economy recover in the wake of the Great Depression.