“Sir, I wish to hear the agricultural voice of the country; let the farmers and planters speak.”
On April 29, 1820, North Carolina Representative Lewis Williams rose to address what he saw as an injustice in the House of Representatives. The previous day, the House had passed a protective tariff bill championed by northern manufacturing interests but opposed by many southern Members who believed the tariff would make it harder to export their raw materials. Williams argued that the country’s economy rested on three pillars: commerce, manufacturing, and agriculture. Williams pointed out that the House already had a Committee on Commerce and Manufactures which received petitions from commercial interests, but that it lacked an equivalent committee to consider the interests of America’s farmers. “When agriculture is oppressed, and makes complaint, what tribunal is in this House to hear and determine on the grievance?” he asked.
At the end of his speech, Williams introduced H.J. Res. 479. The simple measure stated: “Resolved, That an additional standing committee be appointed, to be denominated ‘The Committee on Agriculture.’” A few days later, Williams’ proposal came up for consideration, and the House approved it by voice vote. The committee was initially assigned seven Members, but Congress adjourned sine die only two weeks later, leaving the committee empty until Members returned for the second session of the 16th Congress (1819–1821) in November. The House appointed Thomas Forrest of Pennsylvania as the committee’s first chairman and divided the other six seats among states from both North and South.
In its early years, the committee’s jurisdiction simply encompassed “subjects relating to agriculture.” Over the years, the committee’s purview expanded. By the late 1800s, for instance, the Agriculture Committee considered forestry issues, alongside traditional farming concerns. The United States Department of Agriculture, which became a Cabinet office in 1889, began issuing its reports to the committee to facilitate its oversight role. A half century later, the Agriculture Committee survived the extensive jurisdictional reshuffling of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 and it emerged with a stronger mandate. It eventually became responsible for the sweeping farm bills which today include a range of policies and programs including farming practices, price protections, and the food stamp program introduced during the 1960s. As the committee celebrates its bicentennial, it continues to play a critical part shaping federal agricultural policies.
Harold Cooley of North Carolina
As chair of the Agriculture Committee for eight nonconsecutive terms (1949–1953 and 1955–1967), Harold Cooley of North Carolina holds the record as the committee’s longest-serving chairman. Several prominent laws passed during Cooley’s postwar tenure as chairman, including the Defense Production Act, the introduction of food stamps in the Agricultural Act of 1961, and the Food and Agriculture Act of 1965 which consolidated programs under the Department of Agriculture with price supports and federal aid programs appealing to both farmers and consumers.
Eligio (Kika) de la Garza II of Texas
As chair of the Agriculture Committee for 10 years, Eligio (Kika) de la Garza II prioritized the farming concerns of his rural south Texas district. De la Garza joined the Agriculture Committee during his first term in office and retained his seat through the rest of his 32 years in Congress. In 1967, de la Garza was named chairman of the Departmental Operations Subcommittee, which he led until becoming chair of the full committee in the 97th Congress (1981–1983). De la Garza used his seat on the committee to pass several major agriculture bills that improved irrigation, created benefits for sugar and cotton farmers, and implemented drought relief. “We provide help for the farmer now,” De la Garza said, “because by helping him, we help all of our rural citizens. There is an interdependence between the farmer, the agri-businessman and all others who go to make up the fabric of rural America.”
Soil Conservation in the New Deal Congress
Throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and the Dakotas during the early 1930s, high winds stirred the arid soil, loosened after years of rapid homesteading and commercial agriculture. Hundreds of dust storms ripped across the southern plains in 1933, a prelude to the major storm of May 1934, which whipped an estimated 350 million tons of earth into the sky. It trapped people in their homes and suffocated cattle on the plains. In response, western House Democrats introduced H.R. 7054, “to provide for the protection of land resources against soil erosion, and for other purposes.”
The House Unveils the Portrait of Chairman William Poage of Texas
On February 26, 1968, the House unveiled a portrait of Representative William Poage of Texas, marking his chairmanship of the Committee on Agriculture. Poage served as chairman for nearly a decade (1967–1975) but his portrait unveiling is notable because it occurred only one year into his tenure.
A Woman Representative on the Agriculture Committee
Jill Lynette Long Thompson of Indiana explains how her early life on a dairy farm shaped her approach to politics and made her an important member of the Agriculture Committee.
Serving on the Agriculture Committee
The first African-American woman elected from North Carolina, Eva M. Clayton used her seat on the Committee, as well as her access to the White House and congressional leaders, to seek assistance for African-American farmers in her rural district. In her oral history, Clayton described the obstacles she faced on the Agriculture Committee.
Sketch for "Calling of Cincinnatus from the Plow"
This small oil sketch was Brumidi's first work for the Capitol. Although the artist is famous for creating most of the building's frescoes, supervising engineer Montgomery Meigs initially had him paint a single room, which eventually became the Agriculture Committee’s room. This sketch contains Brumidi’s ideas for lunettes at either end of the space. The subject of the top image is “Calling of Cincinnatus from the Plow,” a tale of patriotism from the ancient Roman Republic.
The Agricultural Room Stereoview
After finishing his “Calling of Cincinnatus from the Plow,” Brumidi began to paint the first fresco of the Capitol extension; it is barely visible at the top of this stereoview of the House Committee on Agriculture room.
Gronna to Cannon
Asle Jorgenson Gronna represented North Dakota in the House from 1905 to 1911, and in the Senate from 1911 to 1921. In 1906, Gronna wrote to Speaker Joseph Cannon seeking appointment to the Committee on Agriculture. “Living as I do in one of the greatest agricultural states in the Union,” Gronna reasoned, “I believe that this state should be represented on the Committee.” This is just one of many letters found in a trunk belonging to “Uncle Joe” asking the powerful Speaker for a favor.
Gone to Seed
Cucumber, watermelon, parsley, radish, and pea. Hundreds of seed packets sat in the basement of the House Office Building, waiting to be distributed free to constituents by Representatives. Congressional seed distribution took root in 1839 to improve domestic agriculture and propagate rare plants. But it didn’t grow organically. In 1838, the Committee on Agriculture lamented that “scarcely a dollar has been appropriated, either directly or indirectly, to advance the interests of agriculture,” and recommended that the government better support farming, a main industry of the country. The Committee proposed forming an agricultural depository to collect seeds and plants in the Patent Office.
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