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06.09.10

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Phaedra
HUGS TREES: Will Mark Lipson be the only USDA employee with a Dirt shirtand a yurt? Under this administration, maybe not.

Mr. Lipson Goes to Washington

A farmer and longtime organic policy researcher heads to the capital

By Christina Waters


KICKING the Santa Cruz Mountains soil off his boots and trading his dry-farmed acres for a government office, organic farming advocate Mark Lipson is headed to Washington next month for a two-year stint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We began as an exotic, invasive species," he recently told a research group in Washington, "but now organic farming and food is becoming a full-fledged part of the native ecosystem here at USDA."

Lipson has cultivated his new position as Organic Farming Program Specialist over decades of hands-on commitment, first at CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) influencing state legislation for organic certification, and then starting in 1995 at the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). Working with Bob Scowcroft, Lipson raised awareness to expand organics in the United States.

"Our study showed that only one-10th of 1 percent in 1995 of American agriculture was going toward organic," Lipson notes. "There were a lot of entities trying to use some organic methods to reduce their environmental footprint. But we were interested in completely organic systems."

It was an uphill battle. "I went to a lot of meetings where there were a lot of snickers ... at best," he recalls. "The cultural disconnect was huge. There was a taboo within the scientific community over the environmental movement and all of its trappings."

Lipson discovered a "complete dismissal" of organics by agribusiness that was based on fear and distrust.

"By being an advocate for farmers, we've tried to bridge that gap, and by being consistent about that over 25 years, we've partially allayed those fears," he says.

Lipson has seen significant changes, but there's still work to be done. The various entities currently on board—government and universities and science and industry—all need to coordinate their efforts. And that's what Lipson hopes to accomplish in the nation's capital, where his longtime friend and OFRF colleague Kathleen Merrigan was appointed deputy secretary of agriculture under Tom Vilsack.

Another significant change for Lipson involves lifestyle. "Out here I live off the grid and commute down the coast. I feel that I have the best of everything—I'm the most privileged person in the world," he says.

He came to the Molino Creek Farming Collective above Davenport through UCSC's Environmental Studies program, where he graduated in public policy.

"I organized student cooperative housing and I was on the board of the Neighborhood Coop Board," he explains. "Then I helped start up Molino Creek." At first he wasn't planning on actually farming the 137-acre property he shares with eight other households. "But I became quickly aware that this was where I belonged—it's good land to farm."

And he's been there since 1983.

Lipson's commitment in Washington is two years, with an option for more, but he says he'll return to Santa Cruz after completing this assignment, which he regards as a natural extension of the work he's been doing. D.C. will be a big change. "But I've been called," he says, "and so I'm going."


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