Following are the highlights from his interview with OPN Connect.
OPN Connect: At the recently held annual CCOF conference you said, “farmers are loved but agriculture is seen as big business”. Can you elaborate further on this?
Mark Lipson: The context of the discussion was the need for all farmers to be as allied as possible in dealing with the state legislature. Farmers individually have great respect and deference when talking with legislators and others, but somehow agriculture as a whole isn’t trusted and seen as ‘Big Business’. We need to navigate that contradiction by having a wide range of farmers involved and increased dialog within agriculture across the spectrum on how we present ourselves and represent agriculture, not just how we represent ourselves.
OPN Connect: How did you decide upon a career focused on organics?
Mark Lipson: I was the first paid staff member for CCOF, which had been around for about a decade earlier. In that sense, I guess I was a sort of founder. I started out as a farmer on a small farm growing vegetables, tree fruit and cut flowers. My interest grew in organic general policy by way of being involved in the cooperative movement and Molino Creek Farm cooperative since 1983. I love working with plants, being part of a community and homesteading. I had my degree in Environmental Studies from University of California – Santa Cruz so it made sense. That’s where I have a research appointment now.
OPN Connect: What has been the high point of your work in organics?
Mark Lipson: Serving in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. as the first organic policy advisor, from 2010 to 2014. Tom Vilsack was the Secretary of Agriculture and Kathleen Merrigan was Deputy Secretary and COO of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kathleen hired me for this newly created position and it was my job to work with the entire USDA group to help infiltrate organic throughout the department. My mission was to go beyond the National Organic Program and make organic a regular part of USDA programs.
OPN Connect: Did you succeed?
Mark Lipson: I think we made great progress, but organic still has a long way to go.
OPN Connect: What do you think is the “next big thing” for organic fresh produce?
Mark Lipson: We have huge challenges right now in California – water, labor, development…holding on to farmland – but there is a lot that’s positive. There’s great work being done on organic seed breeding and specially selected cultivars for organic systems. We need huge changes in energy usage and to figure out how to develop new production systems.
OPN Connect: Is biodynamic and Demeter the next step?
Mark Lipson: I’m not sure it’s open-ended enough, but as far as the soil, carbon emissions and reduction of greenhouse gases, organic has a lot of good things going for it already. But, as I said, we still have a long way to go.
OPN Connect: That brings us to my next question. Do you believe a generic organic products marketing order is a good idea? Why or why not?
Mark Lipson: Yes. GRO Organic is absolutely essential. I worked with the Organic Trade Association on the research provisions of the final proposal, so I think that GRO ensures that most of the important needs are met and adapted. I’ve said before that there is a disproportionate amount of funding for research not going to organic based on its market share.
OPN Connect: Do you think GRO will get to the referendum stage and pass?
Mark Lipson: Getting to a vote is the big challenge. I don’t think the industry is as polarized as it might appear, but there are some visceral objections based on emotional response to checkoffs in general and not on the proposal itself, which differentiates it from other checkoffs.
If we want GRO to succeed, I suggest we emphasize the research aspects in the proposal. Yes, we are making progress on building organic research, but this will stall unless we can bring in more resources. We can’t count on USDA, the Farm Bill and others to fund organic research in perpetuity. We have to bring our own resources to the table to sustain the research and teaching of organic agriculture. We’re just starting to make a dent and we need to come together to support continuing organic research.
OPN Connect: What is the big thing keeping you up at night?
Mark Lipson: Climate change dwarfs everything else and I’m concerned that we’re going to slip backwards on this. It will take a lot to defend it. Organic may not be the biggest overall concern, but it is important and a key part of a healthful, clean, wholesome and sustainable food supply. We can’t take it for granted.
OPN Connect: What else would you like the OPN Connect community to know about the future of organics?
Mark Lipson: I believe strongly that the organic regulations and certification processes have made organic agriculture possible. The marketplace is a mighty engine. The organic rules and certification are essential to maintaining a fair marketplace and a means to an end – they ground people in long-term sustainability.
I think that we need to accept and imagine change. I’m 60 and I’ve been doing this most of my life. My generation is way too attached to the way it’s always been. The next generation will have to treat what’s been handed down to them with respect and honor the history of organic agriculture, but they also need to own it. I don’t think my generation is helping with that.
The organic farmers of the future need to act together cohesively and not just evaluate things from their own individual perspective. They can’t be trapped and constrained by what has been. They have to join together. The certification and grower organizations that spawned organic agriculture were a result of lots of people working together. The next generation of organic farmers mistrust the trappings of organizations and rigors of certification. I see them being isolated from one another and while it might be tempting to say, ‘I’m doing direct marketing for our own brand’ or ‘we’ll just sell this as natural’, sustaining organic agriculture can only come from everyone working together.
OPN Connect: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give someone new to this business?
Mark Lipson: Just be prepared to be in this for the long-haul. That and recognize that there is wisdom in nature for EVERYTHING.
Mark Lipson is a well-known organic agriculture advocate and farmer. For the past 34 years, he has been a partner at Santa Cruz-based Molino Creek Farming Collective. Lipson was the first paid staff member at California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and served as policy director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF).
Lipson chaired USDA’s organic working group, also helping lead the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative. Currently, he is a Research Associate with the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Farming Systems at University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC).
This February, he was honored with the “Sustainability Champion” award by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).