Dan Imhoff’s Newly Revised Farm Bill Citizen’s Guide Released by Island Press


In January 2019, Island Press released Watershed Media co-founder Dan Imhoff’s third edition of his acclaimed primer on U.S. food and farm policy. The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide was the result of a few years of research and revisions to the previous 2012 edition of the book, under the previous title, Food Fight. Christina Badaracco, graduate of the University of California at Berklee’s master program in public health, was a co-author on the project.

The book made immediate impact when Imhoff and Badaracco appeared in Washington DC in late January for a series of events which included a public talk at Busboys and Poets bookstore and a Congressional briefing co-sponsored by CA-Rep. Jared Huffman and OR-Rep. Earl Blumenauer. Watershed Media was extremely pleased to collaborate with Ricardo Salvador, Mike Lavender and Sarah Reinhardt of the Union of Concerned Scientists on these events.

In late March Imhoff travelled to Baltimore for an appearance at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Co-authors Imhoff, Badaracco and economics professor Adam Sheingate spoke to a packed lunchtime auditorium that included professors, the public and students from a number of different programs within the university.

Press around the book has been steady. A number of interviews have been published including podcasts from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Roots of Change. Imhoff also has contributed op-eds to Civil Eats, Environmental Health News, and the Sustainable Food Trust in the wake of the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill in December.

The latest edition of the Citizen’s Guide is nearly 300 pages long with over 50 updated charts and diagrams and a new format designed to make the technical language of the massive bill understandable to broad readership. The book also features a foreword by Marion Nestle, one of the country’s leading champions of food and farm policy reform.

The Farm Bill has already become a popular text for the burgeoning number of classes in sustainable food systems in universities around the country. The book is also a compelling resource to bring together various members of society to try to reform a critically flawed yet vitally important legislation. The early editions of this book inspired the City of Seattle to write its own Farm Bill Principles, which were later adopted by the National League of Cities.

Imhoff’s favorite story of how a book can activate audiences and influence influencers involves chef Michel Nischan and the group he co-founded, Wholesome Wave. Following the publication of the first edition of Food Fight, Imhoff was invited by Nischan to speak at the Westport Playhouse at a Wholesome Wave and American Farmland Trust event in 2007. It was attended by the late Gus Schumacher, a former Under Secretary of Agriculture at USDA and CT-Rep Rosa DeLauro, among others.

Inspired by a slide from Imhoff’s book that graphically represented how Farm Bill dollars are spent, Wholesome Wave began advocating for SNAP funds to be used to increase the affordability and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income Americans.

The effort evolved into the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives program (FINI) which helps SNAP recipients double their purchases of local produce at farmer’s markets and other retail points of sale. In the recently passed 2018 Farm Bill, the program received permanent funding status with a budget of up to $250 million per year for five years and is now known as The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program.

California Soda Tax on Hold

Watershed Media has been providing support in the form of videos and graphics for a coalition of California activists working with health professionals and legislators to pass a 2 cent per ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages. The California Community Health Fund (AB 138) would raise money to promote health programs, sustainable agriculture, and community development, has been under consider for many years. In 2019, the bill made it farther through the legislative process than in previous attempts. Unfortunately, it has been blocked from further action until at least January 2020.

Our media campaign was designed to engage citizens to lend their voices to this important initiative, which could generate billions of dollars to support critically needed programs. The powerful soda lobby is doing everything they can to stop legislation of this kind, which means donating tens of thousands of dollars to legislators on key committees. This is despite alarming trends which sugar sweetened beverages are fueling in the Golden State:

• $40 billion in annual costs of diabetes due to lost productivity and treatment;

• 15.5 million California adults who have diabetes or pre-diabetes;

• 12,500 amputations due to diabetes each year.

Roots of Change, the Public Health Institute and many other organizations continue to work for broader public awareness on the issue.

Despite Small Wins, the New Farm Bill is a Failure of Imagination

This article by Dan Imhoff originally appeared in Civil Eats, December 18, 2018.

The $867 billion 2018 Farm Bill the House and Senate passed this week is a hot mess. The Washington Post editorial board described it as “a bad outcome—that could have been worse.” And they’re right. Unfortunately, we’re all going to be affected by it.

Congress passes a farm bill around every five years. It’s an encyclopedic set of rules that doles out nearly a trillion dollars every 10 years for farm subsidies and crop insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and on-farm conservation programs.

To be fair, the farm bill is a mirror of our political process. As such, it is a lopsided mix of some good policy and a lot of bad. I’ll get into the good (and mixed) news in more detail below, but for now let’s just say that progressives can be happy that programs to combat hunger, expand local and organic food production, train beginning farmers, and protect the land were all successfully championed this time around.

Still, the revised farm bill will ensure that citizens continue to pay for their food at least three times: 1) at the checkout stand; 2) in environmental cleanup and medical costs related to the consequences of industrial agriculture; and 3) as taxpayers who fund subsidies to a small group of commodity farmers deemed too big to fail.

Granted, many of those farmers are caught in a vicious cycle. Most live in areas where the only market and infrastructure support commodity crops, and yet those crops don’t support a resilient farm system. One-half of agricultural counties in the United States were designated as disaster areas from 2012 to 2016. Current subsidies are supposed to provide a safety net to even out the financial ups and downs of crop production and help farmers stay afloat in a competitive global economy.

Instead, over the last half century they’ve created an expensive and polluting engine of overproduction, which drives down prices, saturates markets, and shifts the burden of recouping costs to taxpayers who subsidize farmers’ insurance policies and other relief.

The 2018 Farm Bill will strengthen crop insurance subsidies that guarantee farm income even across swaths of the U.S. where soybean, corn and wheat growers will benefit from more generous terms on government loans. Small dairy farmers, who are regularly swamped by a flood of cheap milk from mega-dairies, will also gain protection.

Perhaps the biggest boon for commodity producers is the opening of eligibility loopholes. By blurring the definitions of what constitutes a “family farm,” the new bill will allow these farms to balloon in size and exponentially dip into the public trough. Current household limits for the two largest subsidy programs are set at $125,000 per year per operator and $250,000 for a married couple. (Household operations with an adjusted gross income under $900,000, and $1,800,000 for couples, are eligible.)

The revised law will now permit children and their spouses to also be seen as “actively engaged” in farming and therefore eligible for subsidies. It doesn’t end there. Nephews, nieces, cousins, and other extended family members can be daisy-chained to receive benefits as long as they can demonstrate participation in farm management even if they don’t set foot on the farm. This was justified in the name of supporting a new generation of family farmers. It seems more designed to help the big operations get bigger.

Swaddling struggling commodity farmers in a lavish safety net might be acceptable if we were also building a nationwide foundation of stewardship and vibrant local food production. But most of the nation’s ever-increasing harvests of corn (farmers grew a near-record 14.6 bushels in 2018) and soybeans (farmers grew a record 4.5 billion bushels in 2018) aren’t even eaten directly by humans. They’re fed to cattle, hogs, and poultry or transformed into processed food ingredients and biofuels.

More than 20 percent of our agricultural output is exported. The real winners are the grain traders, meat packers, ethanol distributors, agrochemical corporations, equipment manufacturers, financiers, and insurers whose lobbyists write the farm bills and who benefit from low commodity prices and capital-intensive farming methods. There is a waste crisis as well: 40 percent of the food produced never reaches an eater’s plate; much of it ends up in landfills.

It is important to note that these increases in farm supports are the product of a compromise reached through negotiation. The bills passed separately by the House and Senate earlier this year were so different that they went into a process known as conferencing, wherein majority and minority leaders in both Agriculture Committees attempt to make a deal.

The House Bill included much-discussed work and job training requirements for some SNAP recipients. In the name of promoting “independence” this would have placed additional hoops in the path of over a million underemployed Americans seeking hunger relief—for questionable budget savings. This issue may not be settled, however. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Purdue has drafted a rule intended to crack down on recipients who currently have work requirement waivers. The House Bill also included riders that would have exempted pesticides from clean water violations and eased restrictions on logging in federal lands under the guise of reducing fuel loads. Democrats declared victory after these crucial elements were dropped in the conference process.

In the end, one wonders whether these were ever serious expectations or just part of a shrewd Republican strategy. More importantly, why did the Democrats not wait until January to conference the bill when the newly elected House may have offered an opportunity for much needed reforms?

There are a few gains to so-called “small but mighty” programs. Efforts to expand composting operations and reduce food waste in 10 states, along with the establishment of a food loss and waste reduction liaison were funded at $25 million per year through 2023. Industrial hemp will now be recognized by the USDA as a legitimate commodity crop, and may offer an additional cash crop to rotate in with commodity crops. (That may also provide some temporary relief in the form of hemp-derived, non-psychoactive cannabidiol, or CBD, for citizens frustrated by the lack of forward thinking in the bill otherwise.)

Permanent mandatory funding was also granted for local food initiatives, beginner farmer support, and organic research. Given the value that these programs generate and proven track records, however, their funding should have not only been guaranteed but increased ten-fold.

Conservation spending—which goes to help farmers use practices that reduce air and water pollution, improve the soil, and sequester carbon—was renewed at 2018 levels. There will be an increase of 3 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners not to farm on land and to protect on-farm habitat. CRP payments will be reduced to 80 percent of a county’s average rental acreage, however, making it a less attractive option than rolling the dice with crop insurance.

The innovative Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) survived the House bill’s attempt to absorb it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program but saw its budget nearly cut in half. The CSP, as it is known, rewards farmers for a range of stewardship activities rather than per acre output of corn, soybeans, etc. CSP pays farmers to reduce their use of chemicals, grow cover crops, optimize their use of energy, protect wildlife habitat, and diversify their operations. This is exactly the type of farming we need more than ever, as the climate warms and becomes less predictable and nitrogen levels in our waterways and oceans have reached crisis level.

Federal money spent on conservation programs are arguably the most justifiable investments the government makes in our rural landscapes. In the absence of policies that encourage supply management, crop subsidies and crop insurance payments encourage the overproduction of commodities by taking the risks out of planting. The consequences of low prices and intensive farming practices then become the responsibility of the taxpayers.

When global markets are flooded with cheap commodities, it’s often the small holder farmers in nations without subsidies who are most affected. Conservation programs should be designed to support landowners for efforts the market does not: building resilience with perennial habitats that can harbor fish and wildlife, filtering runoff, limiting storm damage, and removing carbon from the atmosphere by storing it deep within the soil.

Some policymakers have declared the preservation of conservation budgets at the current spending levels as a key victory. But in the larger scheme of things, citizens were still done a great disservice. Conservation programs were slashed by $6 billion during the 2014 Farm Bill and should have been restored to those former spending levels at a minimum.

That funding could be directed to drastically increase our use of cover crops such as rye and legumes, which provide non-chemical nutrients and build organic matter and protect bare soil on farms and rangelands. On-farm energy use could be aggressively reduced. Research into soil building, no-till and organic farming, and rangeland management must be significantly scaled up. Animals could be removed from massive feeding operations and re-integrated in lesser numbers in managed pasture rotations. This effort will require a whole new generation of training and infrastructure, including hundreds of regional processing facilities.

Farmers could massively expand habitat in and around farmlands by taking marginal lands and former field borders and drained wetlands out of production and planting deep rooted perennials to create a bank of underground carbon. There are historical examples of such bold action in response to crisis. In 1935, for example, the government launched the Plains Shelterbelt Project, with the goal of planting a 100-mile wide swath of trees from North Dakota to Texas to provide a line of defense against wind erosion and the Dust Bowl.

The farm bill is our chance to invest in agriculture that is ecologically and economically sustainable. When it comes to food and agriculture policy, we reap what we sow.

Watershed Media Launches "Reality Check” Communication Tool

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Reality Check  is a flexible graphic design tool to help organizations advocate against the incursion of large-scale factory farms in their communities.

Each year, the agribusiness industry spends tens of millions of dollars to spin their own stories about the realities of industrial farming. Seven states have passed Whistle Blower suppression legislation — also known as “Ag-gag” laws — that attempt to criminalize the investigation and documentation of day-to-day activities on industrial farms. “Right to Farm” laws have been introduced in nearly 20 states to further shield agriculture from regulations applicable to industrial activities.

Reality Check pairs on-the-ground photos and descriptions with ag industry terminology. Achieving transparency around the true impacts of industrial livestock production is essential to changing the way we produce food and protect the land, rural communities, animal welfare and public health.

Reality Check uses copyright approved photos that can be printed in a variety of formats:

  • large-scale posters for exhibit presentation at conferences;
  • post cards with information specific to your campaign;
  • simple graphics for social media outreach.

We are always on the hunt for appropriate terms and powerful, well-composed images!

We would like to work with your organization so that one day in the future, this pollutive, highly divisive, and unsustainable model of food production will be a thing of the past.

Contact us here.

Watershed Media Produces 2016 California Food and Agriculture Legislation Tracker

2016-cafpc-web-slider-coverFor the third consecutive year, Watershed Media worked with Roots of Change (ROC) and the California Food Policy Council (CAFPC) to produce its annual report. The statewide group, that consists of 27 separate councils, tracks bills related to food and agriculture as they make their way through the legislative process. A Policy Work Group votes on which bills to track, renders insightful analysis, and reports the voting records of each member of the state Senate and Assembly. The result is an important document that presents an annual snap shot of policy changes and challenges in the nation’s most populous and most agriculturally productive state.

Watershed Media spent two months working along side ROC's intrepid leader Michael Dimock and the writing committee, a dynamic process that required multiple rounds of editing and contributions from many members. Last year's “Food and Agriculture Index” was revised with powerful data points to explain the urgency behind changing policies to address critical issues, from water use, to poverty to climate change. Watershed Media co-founder Roberto Carra's masterful graphic design shines on every page of the report.

“Speaking with a unified voice is not an easy task for a group as diverse as we are," says Dimock, author of the introduction. "Watershed Media adds a depth and skill at helping stakeholders with many different goals and points of view agree on a common language that is both written and visual. Once again we were able to achieve a communication approach and voice that become more important than any individual’s or organization’s agenda.”

Dimock continues: “Because of the careful attention to every aspect of this report, we hope that more citizens and policy makers will spend more time with it and in the process increase their commitments to food systems policy change.”








Watershed Media Produces 2015 Report on California Food and Farming Legislation

For the second consecutive year, Watershed Media worked with Roots of Change and the California Food Policy Council (CAFPC) to produce its annual report. The statewide group, that consists of 29 separate councils, tracks bills related to food and agriculture as they make their way through the legislative process. Working committees decide on which bills to track, render insightful analysis, and report the voting records of each member of the state Senate and Assembly. While not a report card per se, it is an important document that presents an annual snap shot of policy changes and challenges in the nation’s most populous and most agriculturally productive state.

This year Watershed Media was far more involved in the CAFPC reporting process. Dan Imhoff worked along side the writing committee, a dynamic group process that required multiple rounds of editing and contributions from members. He also introduced the concept of a “Food and Farming Index,” as a way of using powerful data points to explain the urgency behind changing policies to address critical issues, from water use, to poverty and climate change. In addition to a smart design for the report itself, Roberto Carra created a logo to give CAFPC a strong graphic identity.

“Watershed Media showed both a depth and skill at helping a diverse group of stakeholders agree on common language in clarifying goals and intentions,” says Michael Dimock,” director of Roots of Change and author of the report’s introduction. “The expertise and well framed suggestions from Dan and his team helped us achieve a communication approach and voice that became more important than any individual’s or organization’s agenda.”

Dimock continues: “Because of the punchy design, addition of the index, direct language, our hope is that more citizens and policy makers will spend more time with the report and in the process increase their commitment to food systems policy change.”

Download a copy of the 2015 CAFPC Report here.

True Cost Agriculture Report Targets World Bank Loan Programs

FOUNDATION EARTH web presen3Washington DC, September 15, 2015 — A report released by Watershed Media and Foundation Earth urges World Bank leaders to revamp policies that oversee more than $10 billion in agriculture loans and grants each year. At the root of their analysis is the need for new financial frameworks that address “externalities”—earth and health damaging impacts of economic activities that currently don’t show up on profit and loss sheets or loan applications.

“In the face of a rapidly overheating climate, collapsing fisheries, degraded soil, depleted water resources, vanishing species, and other challenges directly related to agriculture, we can no longer afford to pursue a flawed accounting system,” write Dan Imhoff (Watershed Media) and Randy Hayes (Foundation Earth), authors of the report.

They recommend a new True Cost Accounting approach designed to fund Biosphere Smart Agriculture projects that produce the healthiest food with the least environmental impacts for the long-term security of target communities.

Among the key goals of the World Bank’s growing agriculture program are raising income levels and alleviating poverty among the world’s poorest populations while also addressing climate change. Agriculture contributes 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also one of the economic sectors most directly affected by rising temperatures, searing droughts and violent flooding.

According to the new report, the World Bank should focus its essential financial assets toward growing a global agroecology movement in order to fight poverty and turn back the earth warming impacts of food production. This means shifting away from the large-scale industrial mindset that has dominated the Bank’s development philosophies for decades and investing in a new generation of smaller scale, ecologically sustainable, information intensive farming systems.

As part of this research, the Switzerland based Millennium Institute was commissioned to study potential outcome scenarios for a current World Bank loan. Using their T-21 modeling program, they analyzed the on-the-ground outcomes of an $86 million loan to Senegal, primarily for bringing new irrigation systems to two regions of the West African nation. Millennium’s study determined that, while new irrigation projects will help raise a number of Senegalese out of poverty, the loan would dramatically improve livelihoods if directed toward a community-based agroecology initiative.

At the April 2015 annual meetings in Washignton DC, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim declared that the World Bank needs to become part of the solution of rethinking food in developing countries.

“We hope that this report will be essential reading for that rethinking process,” says Foundation Earth President Randy Hayes.

Download the full report here.

PBS Farm Bill documentary features Dan Imhoff and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

From the Founding Farmers to the modern Farm Bill, what has 200 years of progress brought to the table? More food at lower prices for sure, but also food fights over the environment, hunger, nutrition, and waste. In this closing episode of the 13-part PBS series Food Forward TV, Watershed Media co-founder Dan Imhoff, along with politicians, policy watchdogs and food experts take viewers on a personal tour through the history of food and agriculture in America. There’s an entry point for everyone in the conversation about how we feed ourselves.


Watershed Media Designs 2014 Legislative Report

In late 2014, the advocacy group Roots of Change hired Watershed Media to produce its annual report on California''s food and agriculture bills. Changing the food system is currently a hot topic in California politics. Last year's proposed bills ranged from carbon payments to nutrition assistance to fair labor regulations and many other relevant issues. The state already has 25 food policy councils in cities large and small forming a united front for a more ecologically and socially responsive approach to agriculture. Watershed Media's job was to make the California Food Policy Council (CAFPC) technical report come alive on the page. We created a "word cloud" cover as well as a series of icons to illustrate the values and principles the CAFPC stands for. These went along with a chart detailing how the state's entire legislature voted on a series of bills related to the food and farming issues. The report has garnered a lot of attention, at least some of which comes from making technical information accessible and visually dynamic— one of Watershed Media's specialties.

Annual Report (Recent work)
Watershed Media Designs the 2014 California Food Policy Council Report
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Chart details the voting records of all state legislators on food and agriculture bills.
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We created a legend of icons illustrating the Food Policy Council's guiding principles.
Annual report covers
Front and back covers of the report


Report Download

Message to Congress: Stop Monkeying Around with Conservation Budgets


When most Americans think of the agencies in charge of nature conservation, the Department of the Interior or the National Park Service likely spring to mind. They don’t think of the Department of Agriculture, which allocates nearly $4 billion per year to land conservation in its Farm Bill.

This summer the House and Senate are rewriting the Farm Bill, which Congress last year kicked down the road. The 10-year price tag will total nearly a trillion dollars, funding food stamps, agribusiness subsidies, conservation, and research. Budget cutters are searching for billions of dollars to slash, and Farm Bill conservation programs, once again, seem vulnerable.

This is real cause for concern. Established in response to the overplowing that led to the Dust Bowl, conservation programs are intended to compensate landowners for vital work that the free market does not value: soil protection, wetland and grassland preservation, water filtration, pesticide and fertilizer reduction, carbon sequestration. Safeguarding natural resources in a time of rising temperatures and more violent weather events are crucial investments in public health and national security.

Of all agriculturally-related federal spending, conservation programs can offer the public the biggest return for the taxpayer dollar. They can expand the availability of organic and pasture-raised foods, help farmers reduce runoff that harms public waterways, promote soil-enhancing practices like cover cropping and field rotations, and protect farmland and wildlands for future generations.



Unfortunately, most members of Congress, including many influential members of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees, don’t understand the devastating toll that six decades of Farm Bill subsidized factory farming methods has taken on the land—or the power of conservation programs to reverse them.

Adding insult to injury, those conservation programs that do exist rarely get the money they are promised when Farm Bills are passed. Legislators make a big deal about how the Farm Bill protects the environment. But whenever budget appropriators need savings, conservation programs are the first on the chopping block. There’s a term for this: Changes in Mandatory Program Spending, or CHIMPS.

Over the last five years, Conservation budgets have been CHIMPed by more than $3 billion, with nearly $2 billion in cuts between 2011 and 2013 alone. That’s not because there’s no demand for the programs. Three out of four applications are turned away for lack of funding.

Even common sense on-farm stewardship practices that were historically required of farm subsidy recipients are disappearing from the Farm Bill. Take taxpayer funded crop insurance. Over the past five years, subsidized crop insurance has become farmers’ preferred source of taxpayer assistance. Crop insurance policies currently come with no land conservation requirements. Because of this, they are actually causing a massive amount of previously protected land to be plowed up. Farmers anxious to cash in on record crop prices no longer have to worry about yields when taxpayer programs guarantee them against losses. Across the Great Plains, corn and soybeans are being planted on millions of acres of erodible lands that were previously deemed marginal and formerly protected through the Conservation Reserve Program. Scientists fear another Dust Bowl is in the making.

hanging CHIMPS

“Congress right now has the ability and responsibility to transform the Conservation Title for the next 10 years,” says Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer. In May, Blumenauer introduced HR 1890, the “Balancing Food, Farms and Environment Act of 2013.” The bill is just one of many intended to strengthen conservation efforts into the House and Senate Farm Bills, which should come to floor votes this summer. A Coburn-Durban amendment is aimed at imposing income thresholds on crop insurance for the largest farmers. HR 1890 would provide more money for to protect land in permanent easements and reward farmers for carbon sequestration. Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced an amendment to expand supports to organic farmers.

In a political landscape hostile to environmental protection, agricultural lobbies have for decades found ways to pilfer conservation budgets to help boost crop and livestock production. Over the last ten years alone, according to the Environmental Working Group, two billion dollars in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program have been diverted to pay for the hard costs of establishing waste containment structures for concentrated animal feeding operations, laying pipe for irrigation in arid regions, and draining wetlands.

Like the Olympic Games, the renewal of the Farm Bill only comes around every four to five years. It offers the opportunity for Americans to invest in the long-term health of farmlands and the countryside. But time may be running out.

Could this year be a turning point for Farm Bill conservation reforms, like the 1985 and 1990 Farm Bills, which established far-reaching efforts to protect grasslands and wetlands across the heartland?