Before President Kennedy asked Orville Freeman to join his cabinet, Freeman pleaded with his old friend Hubert H. Humphrey, "Don't let them make me secretary of agriculture."

His entreaties were futile, but his apprehension was understandable.

In those days, the secretary of agriculture had only one important job, an unglamorous one. It was somehow to get rid of the surplus of U.S. farm products that nobody abroad would buy for cash. The secretary's only constituents were the American farmers who produced this unsold food. USDA was a bureaucratic backwater, but at least the secretary always knew whom he represented and what he had to do.

That is not the case today. USDA now attempts to serve a vast and fractured clientele that goes far beyond farmers. Its clients include food stamp recipients, school children, timber companies, food processing corporations and consumers. Minor decisions at USDA can send billion-dollar shock waves through the U.S. economy. And perhaps the ultimate sign of the agency's importance is the intense political maneuvering and private lobying over its future role.

Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. wants to take over most of the welfare functions that have grown up rapidly in USDA in the 1970s. He proposes to annex the nutrition service, which dispenses food stamps and school lunches to millions.

The Interior Department would like to take away USDA's largest single fieidom - the Forest Service, which presides over 92 million acres of timberland and assures USDA a voice in environmental policy.

The State Department demands a say about food aid going to countries with human rights violations.

The Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget want USDA to shape its programs to prevent inflation, improve the balance of trade and strengthen the dollar.

Consumer organizations closely monitor the agency, demanding stricter enforcement of regulations on food contaminants and food labeling. Ralph Nader, for example, recently attacked assistant secretary Carol Foreman for a ruling she issued on nitrites in bacon, calling her "the first federal official . . . to permit an undisputed cancer-causing substance to remain in commercially sold food."

Some of the most powerful corporations in America lobby effectively against USDA initiatives in such fields as sugar policy, nutritional regulations and world wheat prices.

"Most people in government nowadays want to use food to achieve some special goal of their own, whether it's foreign policy leverage or cheap food for welfare clients. The USDA is a tool," says Prof. Philip Raup, agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota.

Recent economic developments are primarily responsible for all this interest in USDA.

After 1972, when the nation's grain stocks were temporarily depleted, Agriculture shed its role as the plain, poor sister of the U.S. economy. Rising farm prices became a leading factor in inflation. Food exports (valued at $23.7 billion last year rose; until now they pay for imported oil, offset the trade deficit, affect the health of the dollar and are an adjunct of U.S. foreign policy. Soybeans, corn and to a lesser extent wheat and rice became as much a part of America's international economic strength as computers and jet aircraft.

Even before that, in the mid-1960s, other changes were taking place in the structure of agriculture that were to alter USDA's traditional role.

Big corrorations moved into agriculture. Of the $250 billion a year that Americans pay for food today, about $100 billion goes to farmers. The rest goes to grain companies, railroads, food processors, corn refiners, millers, producers of fertilizer and farm chemicals.

As part of this same transformation, the American diet shifted more and more toward processed foods. The new foods were colored, flavored and fortified with chemical additives. In the 1970s, the safety and desirability of the food emanating from this expanding processing industry became a major target of the consumer movement. This brought USDA into the line of fire and into direct contact with consumers.

All this placed new and unfamiliar pressures on USDA - the old line "farmers' agency."

"The forces that converge at the office of the secretary of agriculture would really take your breath away," said an aide in reference to the new situation.

The future of USDA in the agricultural world of the 1970s was not addressed by the previous secretary of agriculture, Earl L. Butz. Butz chose to be the representative of a narrow but powerful clientele: big commercial farmers.

The course preferred by President Carter and Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, both farmers themselves, is more complicated and less certain. Bergland says he wants USDA to be a "food agency" that reaches out to consumers, and to all people in rural areas.

Agricultural historians say this would not be a new departure, but a return to USDA's traditional broad concerns for many diverse groups.

President Lincoln founded USDA in 1862 with the intention that it would be "peculiarly the people's departmet, in which they feel more directly concerned than any other."

In the 1930s, Secretary Henry A. Wallace made the department an activist arm of New Deal social policies, not only supporting farm income but also extending public services to rural people and protecting the soil and environment.

After World War II, however, the role narrowed again as the preoccupation of secretaries, Republican and Democratic, became the disposal of the massive farm surplus. This was a time when USDA developed close links to the companies that processed and marketed the surpluses of wheat, rice, peanuts, cotton, tobacco. The agency's corporate constituency led Prof. James T. Bonnen of the University of Michigan to write that farm policy had been taken over by "a brawling set of commercial agricultural interests."

The real question is whether USDA can now reach out to a broader constituency. On this, the evidence is mixed.

There is no doubt where Bergland stands on helping farmers. The secretary has taken the orthodox, pro-farmer position on most of the important decisions affecting the income of crop and livestock producers.

Bergland, a Minnesota wheat farmer, has argued privately for a higher level of price supports on wheat, sugar cane and sugar beets than favored by the White House.

And he recently recommended that the president delay authorizing an increase in imports of beef, arguing that it would be unfair to increase import quotas just when livestock men are recovering from a long period of depressed prices. The president, however, authorized a small increase as a symbolic gesture to consumers and a signal of his now determination to fight inflation in beef prices.

Sugar is another area where Bergland has had to make policy - and sugar policy is a natural litmus test of concern for consumers, for reasons of economics and health.

Consumers feel the impact of higher sugar prices in soft drinks, candy bars, ice cream, backery products, sugar in supermarkets. And there is general agreement that Americans consume more sugar than is good for their health and their teeth.

However, Foreman, USDA's chief consumer advocate, has stayed out of what has become a bruising battle in Congress over a new sugar program. Representatives of USDA - mindful that sugar has a powerful political constituency in the beet and cane states of Idaho, Texas, Louisiana and Florida - have privately argued for a somewhat higher sugar price support level than is favored by the White House. This could raise the cost of sugar and would do nothing to reduce the size of the present sugar surplus that Americans will have to eat their way through.

Even though Bergland and Foreman have taken traditional positions in many areas, they already have strayed farther from the bedrock agricultural constituency than some hardliners like.

Butz pays them a backhanded compliment when he says there is "rampant consumerism and environmentalism" at USDA.

Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, says Bergland and Foreman have done a good job promoting consumer causes in a political environment that is turning sharply against government regulation of business and industry.

Foreman, who was executive director of the Consumer Federation of America before becoming assistant secretary for food and consumer affairs, is a "code word" for radical consumerism in the agriculture community, says Foley.

Foreman has ordered limits on cancer-causing nitrosamines in bacon. She hs required meat processors to specifically label beef products that are extended with powdered bone. She has fought a losing battle to delete from school breakfasts the controversial "grain fruit product" - a sugary, vitamin-fortified food made by industry.

Department officials say they succeeded in improving food stamp law by eliminating the requirement for a cash downpayment and broadening the coverage to an estimated 2 million poor people.

It is not always clear what a "pro-consumer" position is. Bergland has indicated that he favors increasing the cutting of trees in national forests to reduce the price of lumber and housing. That step might pleace consumers - but it would also please the powerful corporate timber and paper lobby, and would infuriate environmentalists.

In the battle over the "grain fruit product" in school breakfasts. Foreman went up against the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and lost. Foreman believes the organization perceived her attempt to delete the product as the first step in a broader campaign against fortified foods - which are becoming big business for processors and retail chain stores. Her efforts were blocked by Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), chairman of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee.

In the case of the grain-fruit product. Foreman favors a conventional breakfast of eggs, toast and orange juice. Yet in getting tough with processors and food producers on behalf of good, safe nutrition, a major problem is lack of agreement over what constitutes a desirable diet.

Foreman admits that making major policy is difficult when little is known about the impact of processing on nutrition, the recommended daily allowance of some minerals, and why consumers choose certain foods over others.

"I can prove either side of the egg issue," says Bergland, referring to the debate over the health impact of cholesterol from eggs.

But Foreman says that the course has been set, and Bergland says he supports her.

"People feel our food supply is being demeaned," says Foreman. "They feel the food industry is using cheap products. The industry is furious. Their argument is that you have to mislabel a product because otherwise people won't buy it."

NEXT: Secretary vs bureaucracy.