Exclusive Interview with Mark Lipson: USDA Organic Agriculture Policy Advisor

Mark Lipson in DCWhile sipping tea at a local coffee house I was graced to interview my old friend and business associate of many years. Mark is famous on the local produce level and nationally on the policy level. He offers insight into the opportunities for organics. 

Tell me how long you have been a farmer and your experience in the policy arena.

I have been a partner at Molino Creek Farming Collective outside Santa Cruz CA for 30 years. During much of that time I also had a career off the farm working on state and federal policy for organic agriculture, I worked for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in the 1980’s and early 1990’s developing certification systems and also state and federal legislation that happened around that time. Then I worked for the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) as the policy director for 15 years. For the last three years I have been working at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington DC as the Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Policy Advisory for the Office of the Secretary. I have been working directly with the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary and the agency leaders within USDA to coordinate organic policy and educate the Department’s personnel about organic farming,  what the National Organic Program (NOP) does and why it’s important to the other goals of USDA.

So everything you have done has prepared you for this time in your life?

Yes, At OFRF I worked at the federal policy level with different parts of USDA mainly advocating for more research.  We worked to organize scientists and urge institutional administrators to develop and pursue organic research agendas driven by what the farmers said they needed. We also worked extensively with other parts of USDA on the 2008 Farm Bill process to expand the policy agenda into conservation and crop insurance so that those aspects of what the federal government does for agriculture included organic agriculture. The 2008 Farm Bill was a breakthrough for organics and it paved the path for the creation of my position. The Department needed an overall policy coordinator to knit together all aspects of USDA for organic.

How does your experience as an organic farmer add depth to your position with the USDA?

It was very important that I had experience as a working farmer and had a lot of communication with other organic farmers as members of my community. It makes the policy goals more focused in terms of delivering what farmers need. It adds credibility in the policy arena to be able to speak from experience. What are some of the exciting USDA initiatives you are working on that you can share?

There are quite a few. Most important is that recently the Secretary issued a guidance memo to all the agency administrators and undersecretaries throughout the department. It expresses his belief in the importance of organic agriculture to contribute to USDA’s goals such as those for rural economic development. He is directing the heads of each agency to examine their portfolios as to where organic comes up and to coordinate with the National Organic Program (NOP) to streamline requirements and compliance processes within their agencies. He is calling on all the agencies to focus on how they can serve organic agriculture. This will integrate the NOP with other parts of the department so it is not off by itself. We are coordinating all this through the USDA organic working group which has representatives from each USDA agency.

Another ongoing effort is the Organic Literacy Initiative  which is a training program for the USDA workforce to give basic education on the organic standards, the NOP and organic agriculture.  This will ensure that in the course of their job when an organic farmer or potential organic farmer seeks services from the USDA, the employee knows organic is part of USDA’s constituency and  knows what they can do to assist. The Literacy Initiative has been going for 2 years and as of June 1st over 17,000 USDA employees have taken the course! There are 100,000 employees in the USDA so it’s a vast job. It’s been successful and I am proud of the agencies for embracing it. We will see the payoff over the years to come.

All that material is available on the NOP website and it’s also a GREAT tool for everyone in the business to educate vendors and customers about what organic means.

Another thing I am very excited about is going on in the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and integrating organics better into their programs. They have a Soil Health Initiative underway that organic will play an important part in. The Risk Management Agency (RMA) has also made important steps in crop insurance for organic farmers. I believe this has been one of the biggest obstacles for transitioning farmers. If a conventional farmer was used to having risk management tools and those tools didn’t work for organic it was an obstacle to transition. This is an indicator of how we are working to make organic more of the everyday business at the USDA.

In your view what are the greatest opportunities for the organic community?

There are opportunities in every direction and every scale. There are big opportunities at the local and regional scale. The local foods movement is extremely strong now and I think it’s important for organic producers to be identified with it. There is a misperception that if you are local you don’t need organic certification. We know that it’s important to be part of the bigger movement and force within agriculture. Small scale farmers should participate.

There is great opportunity on the larger scale as well; international trade is something we have made big strides on in the last few years. We have implemented equivalency agreements with Canada and the European Union and are in discussions with other countries to facilitate organic trade. There are other things on the horizon that could be important opportunities such as credits for “environmental services”.  We know that organic agriculture does have important environmental services such as protecting our pollinators. It’s vitally important and the benefits are backed up by research.

What words of wisdom can you give the community in order to create action and change?

The government has a rigorous formal process for public participation. It can be confusing at times but it is also an opportunity to have a big impact. It’s important to learn how to participate in the process and give the NOP timely input. Sign up for the NOP Organic Insider Newsletter.  Stay involved with the NOP because everything else we do within USDA critically depends on NOP’s success.  Stakeholders need to support it, give constructive criticism by all means, but be involved.

In closing I have to ask: Your organic tomatoes are famous in this area. What makes them so flavorful?

It’s simple! Less water means more flavor. Molino Creek Farm is the original home of the Dry Farmed Tomato.  The terroir is well suited to dry farming; we have a beautiful clay loam soil on the seaward side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Sadly it’s a long way from DC!

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