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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Our History

Origins of U.S. Agricultural Research

Beginning in the eighteenth century, applications of more formalized and applied research to improve quality and yield of renewable resources and of economic evaluations of processes and products were initiated. Agricultural research institutions, in continuous existence, date from that time in the United Kingdom. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period that was later referred to as the industrial revolution, occurred primarily in England and was characterized by concentration of industries that used annually renewable materials into large factories. The principal economic renewable material used was cotton grown largely in the United States. This initial use of cotton in large factories is an example of effective technology transfer. Several inventions in textile machinery occurred in a relatively short time period: the flying shuttle, spinning jenny, spinning frame, and cotton gin. These inventions facilitated the handling of large quantities of harvested cotton. Later inventions in cultivation, harvesting, and post-harvest technologies led to total mechanization of the cotton industry. Cotton displaced wool as the world's major textile fiber and, in the 1980s, is the world's major source of annually renewable textile fibers. Also, other renewable materials, such as hides and skins, were sent to the tannery for leather making. The processing and preservation of food was also moved into the factory.

Government financed agricultural research in the United States dates from May 15, 1862, when Lincoln signed a bill that established the Department of Agriculture. Also, related bills that included The Homestead Act (May 20, 1862) and The Land Grant College Act (July 2, 1862) were signed. The latter act led to the establishment of major state operated agricultural research centers. On July 1, 1862, Isaac Newton was appointed the first commissioner of agriculture. The initial staff of nine employees used the facilities of the Agricultural Division of the U.S. Patent Office where this division's principal activity had been collection and distribution of seeds and plants. In 1863 the staff of thirty employees included a horticulturist, a chemist, an entomologist, a statistician, and an editor and occupied six rooms in the basement of the U.S. Patent Office Building. In 1889 the Department of Agriculture with four hundred eighty-eight employees was elevated to cabinet status.

Numerous other agricultural adjustment acts have authorized the establishments of many additional experimental stations and laboratories staffed only by federal employees. One out- standing characteristic of U.S. agricultural research has been to respond and to adjust programs to meet changing conditions in food, feed, fiber, and industrial needs. Interested persons are referred to more detailed accounts of the history of the Department.

The achievements of U.S. agricultural research and development have resulted in greatly increased quality and productivity of harvested renewable resources. Plant and animal products were initially improved through natural selection. This sometimes slow natural process can now perhaps be accelerated through contemporary biotechnology. Also, nutrition, disease control, improved storage stability, and mechanical harvesting and processing of plant and animal products have increased both productivity and availability of renewable resources. These developments have led to temporary surpluses in some areas and to shortages in other areas. In the United States, for example, there have been unmarketed surpluses of renewable resources for food and/or feed for more than fifty years. This has led to a decrease in the number of farms, particularly the smaller farms. That is, in the United States, the ratio of the number of persons whose renewable resource needs are met to the number of persons working to supply these needs has increased. During the 1980s the U.S. civilian labor force employed in agriculture is less than three per cent of the total number of persons employed. One of the many by products has been to release millions of persons from employment in agriculture, to meet basic needs of renewable resources, for employment in industrial plant development and in service industries.

U.S. Agricultural Productivity

The scope of this perspective will be limited to considerations of responses during the twentieth century to the question: Should U.S. agricultural productive capacity that leads to abundance be a problem? In particular, areas of U.S. agricultural research and development that have been called: chemurgy, agricultural and industrial chemistry, agricultural chemistry and engineering, utilization research, post-harvest technology, and the like will be considered. Specifically, we will discuss the program developed at the Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) during the period from enactment of enabling legislation in 1938 by the 75th U.S. Congress and the subsequent construction and opening of SRRC in 1941 and its operation through 1993. Scientific and technological achievements of SRRC's staff are documented in technical publications and patents.

During the period 1910-1930 the world market demand for food and feed products stimulated the expansion of agricultural production in the United States. At the same time improvements in practices and mechanization resulted in increased productivity of agriculture. There were record levels of agricultural production. With changes in world economic conditions, the demands for the products decreased, and there were large crop surpluses. In 1935 a group of U.S. agriculturists, industrialists, and scientists proposed to channel the crop surpluses into chemical industries for nonfood products. Many nonfood industrial products were then and subsequently based on renewable resources. "Chem" from chemistry was combined with "urgy" (Greek, work) to yield the term "chemurgy" that was used to describe this type of work. Chemurgy is currently defined as a "division of applied chemistry concerned with industrial use of organic substances, especially from farm products, as soybeans, peanuts, and the like". Also, in the context of the 1930s, production and proven reserves of petroleum were low, and the petrochemical industry was yet to develop.

U.S. Agricultural Research Centers

Early research centers of the U.S. Department of Agriculture which were designed to investigate both food and nonfood utilization of agricultural products probably served as precedents for the chemurgic movement. These centers included: The Citrus Byproducts Laboratory opened in 1914 in Los Angeles, California; The Cooperative Agricultural Byproducts Laboratory, in 1934 in Ames, Iowa; and The Cooperative U.S. Regional Soy- bean Industrial Products Laboratory, in 1936 in Urbana, Illinois.

In 1938 the U.S. Congress in the Agricultural Adjustment Act provided, as follows:

"The Secretary is hereby authorized and directed to establish, equip, and maintain four regional research laboratories, one in each major farm producing area, and at such laboratories to conduct researches into and to develop new scientific chemical and technical uses and new and extended markets and outlets for farm commodities and products and byproducts thereof. Such research and development shall be devoted primarily to those farm commodities in which there are regular or seasonal surpluses, and their products and byproducts." Public Law No. 430, 75th U.S. Congress

The 1939 Survey Report

Provisions in Public Law No. 644, 75th U.S. Congress, H.R. 10238, were made to conduct a survey, to determine the location of said laboratories and the scope of the investigations, and to coordinate the research work now being carried on.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, H. A. Wallace, in Memorandum No. 765, dated July 14, 1938, appointed the following committee to direct the survey:

H. T. Herrick, Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, Chairman P. V. Cardon, Bureau of Plant Industry A. B. Genung, Bureau of Agricultural Economics R. Y. Winters, Office of Experiment Stations

Members of the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils in charge of the survey for the four regional producing areas were:

O. E. May, Northern Producing Area D. F. J. Lynch, Southern Producing Area P. A. Wells, Eastern Producing Area T. L. Swenson, Western Producing Area

Field investigators and staffs of the survey committee visited every state and interviewed representatives of about 1,300 research laboratories, educational institutions, and agricultural organizations. Knowledge of activities on industrial utilization of agricultural commodities in the United States, as well as many hundreds of suggestions regarding needed research work, were obtained from over 1,000 different industrial groups, as well as from all educational and endowed institutions interested. Also, more than 10,000 research projects of federal and state agencies underway in 1938-1939 were reviewed.

Secretary Wallace transmitted the survey report to the President of the Senate on April 5, 1939. Then the report, on Senate Resolution No. 122 submitted by Senator T. Bilbo of Mississippi, was referred to the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry on April 6, 1939. The report became Senate Document No. 65, 76th Congress, 1st Session.

Southern Producing Area

In grouping the States to comply with the 1938 Act, among criteria considered were: Natural boundaries of agriculture in growing the most important crops with a minimum of regional overlaps; and quantitative criteria related to agricultural economics. The Southern Area was designated as the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. Based on agricultural economic data available in the 1930s, the designated Southern Area in relation to U.S. totals had: 34% of the farm population (1935); 17% of the value of farm property (1930); 20% of the cash income from crops and livestock, excluding government payments (1937); 27% of land in farms (1935); and 23% of the total land area.

Commodities that had large surpluses or large numbers of agricultural workers or acres were designated as first priority. Commodities in the Southern Area initially designated were: cotton, sweetpotatoes, and peanuts. Also, to balance the research loads in the four areas, some commodities that could have reasonably been worked on in more than one area were assigned to only one area. An early example was tobacco which was assigned to the Eastern Area rather than the Southern Area. Later, work on commodities, for example, soybeans with increased production in both the Northern and Southern producing areas, were assigned to more than one area. The changes in commodities assigned and organizations in the areas during the past fifty years reflect adjustments of research and development programs to meet changing conditions and newly defined needs for annually renewable materials.

Southern Regional Research Laboratory (now the Southern Regional Research Center)

Points considered in locating the regional laboratories included: to construct a building of adequate size and to equip the building with suitable equipment; to locate the laboratories in an environment which would offer frequent and stimulating professional contacts; to evaluate local technological support for the staff and facilities contemplated. More than 200 locations were investigated; about 80 locations were evaluated on site. Criteria of a technical nature for a location included: accessibility; housing and living conditions; availability of a suitable building site. Locations selected were:

Southern Regional Research Laboratory, New Orleans, Louisiana Northern Regional Research Laboratory, Peoria, Illinois Eastern Regional Research Laboratory, Philadelphia (Wyndmoor),Pennsylvania Western Regional Research Laboratory, Albany (San Francisco),California

On December 29, 1939, the laying of the cornerstone of the Southern Regional Research Laboratory occurred on about a 40-acre building site taken from the northeast corner of City Park on Robert E. Lee Boulevard near Bayou St. John, New Orleans, Louisiana. Prominent guests included: Harry L. Brown, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture; Marvin Jones, chairman, Committee on Agriculture, U.S. House of Representatives; Theodore G. Bilbo, U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Objects placed in the cornerstone included: an open boll of Mississippi cotton preserved in a block of crystal clear plastic developed by the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Chemistry and Engineering; three varieties of peanuts in a block of plastic; cottonseed in a block of plastic; copy of U.S. Senate Document No. 65, the survey report; slices of sweetpotatoes and a rare sweetpotato bloom; copy of the Congressional Act providing for establishment of the laboratory; copies of press releases to date on establishment of the laboratory; copies of the New Orleans morning and afternoon newspapers; copy of the program of the first Chemurgic Conference held in the South at Lafayette, Louisiana, in October 1936; block of plastic containing newly printed and minted U.S. money.

The 1939-1940 Administrative Organization

Washington, D.C. Henry A. Wallace Secretary of Agriculture Henry G. Knight Chief, Bureau of Agricultural Chemistry and Engineering (BACE) W. W. Skinner Associate Chief, BACE H. T. Herrick Assistant Chief of BACE, In Charge of Regional Research Laboratories New Orleans, La. D. F. J. Lynch Director, Southern Regional Research Laboratory

Since 1939 the different levels of administrative organization have been retitled several times. For example, the New Orleans research center has been known as: 1939 - Southern Regional Research Laboratory (SRRL); Southern Utilization Research Branch (SURB); Southern Utilization Research and Development Division (SURDD); Southern Marketing and Nutrition Division (SMND); 1974 - Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC). The Washington, D.C., administrative levels have been known as: 1939 - Bureau of Agricultural Chemistry and Engineering (BACE); 1942 - Bureau of Agricultural and Industrial Chemistry (BAIC); 1943 - Agricultural Research Administration which included several bureaus; 1960 - Agricultural Research Service which includes several areas of research. Generally, research direction has come from the Washington, D.C., level; however, on occasion, implementation of administrative matters have been handled on a regional basis. In 1994 the Southern producing area laboratory is known as the

Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)


1939 - 1945: Daniel F. J. Lynch (deceased) 1946 - 1950: Walter M. Scott (reassigned to Washington, D.C.; (deceased) 1950 - 1972: Charles H. Fisher (retired; resides in Salem, Va.) 1973 - 1980: Mary E. Carter (now in Athens, GA) 1981 - 1986: Ivan W. Kirk (now in College Station, Texas) 1986 - 1994: John A. Barkate (deceased) 1994 - 2008: John Patrick Jordan 2008 - present:  Thomas E. Cleveland

Comparison of New Orleans Research Organization in 1941 with 2010 Research Groups

1941 Sweetpotato Products Division: Paul R. Dawson, leader; Cotton Fiber Division: W. Kyle Ward, Jr., leader; Cotton Chemical Finishing Division: Walter M. Scott, leader; Cotton Mechanical Processing Division: Robert J. Cheatham, leader; Engineering and Development Division: Edward A. Gastrock, leader; Oil, Fat and Protein Division: Klare S. Markley, leader; Analytical, Physical Chemical, Turner H.Hopper, leader and Physics Divisionn.

Note: From time to time field research units in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina, which were in existence before the regional laboratory, were administratively assigned to the New Orleans laboratory.

2012 Commodity Utilization Research Unit: Thomas K. Klasson, RL; Cotton Structure and Quality Research Unit: James E. Rodgers, RL; Food and Feed Safety Research Unit: Deepak Bhatnagar, RL; Cotton Chemistry and Utilization Research Unit: Brian D. Condon, RL; Food Processing & Sensory Quality Research Unit: Michael K. Dowd, Acting RL; Cotton Fiber Bioscience Research Unit: David Fang, RL


"A Report of a Survey Made by the Department of Agriculture Relative to Four Regional Research Laboratories, One in Each Major Farm Producing Area", U.S. Senate, 76th Congress, 1st Session, Document No. 65, April 6, 1939; 429 pp. + 7 introductory pages.

"Increased Industrial Use of Agricultural Products", U.S. Senate, 85th Congress, 1st Session, Document No. 45, June 5, 1957; 135 pp. + 17 introductory pages.

"Strengthening Research on Utilization of Agricultural Commodities", U.S. Senate, 88th Congress, 1st Session, Document No. 34, September 12, 1963; 33 pp. + 9 introductory pages.

"Crops in Peace and War", The Yearbook of Agriculture 1950-1951, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., 942 pp.

"After A Hundred Years", The Yearbook of Agriculture 1962, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., 668 pp.

We wish to acknowledge Jett C. Arthur, Jr., retired, for providing this historical background of the Southern Regional Research Center.

Presentation on History and Programs of SRRC

Last Modified: 8/13/2016
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