Mark Lipson: Senior Analyst and Program Director, Organic Farming Research Foundation

Cultivating a Movement

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Read the full text transcript (PDF) of the oral history with Mark Lipson.

275 Mark Lipson. Photo by Tana Butler.

Mark Lipson is senior analyst and policy program director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). In these interviews, conducted by Ellen Farmer at Molino Creek Farm on June 5, August 25, and December 21, 2007, Lipson describes his long and productive career working on behalf of organic farming policy at the state and federal levels.

As an environmental studies major at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lipson focused on planning and public policy, addressing issues such as offshore oil drilling on the California coast. While he was a student, he helped found a student housing co-op, and served as president of Our Neighborhood Food Co-op, a natural foods store that eventually morphed into New Leaf Community Market. After graduation, this involvement with the co-op movement inspired Lipson to help organize Molino Creek, a co-operative farming community located in the hills above the ocean near Davenport, California. Molino Creek pioneered the growing of flavorful, dry-farmed tomatoes (grown without irrigation).

Seeking organic certification for Molino Creek, Lipson began attending meetings of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). He soon became CCOF’s first paid staff member, working there from 1985 to 1992, steering the organization through the establishment of a statewide office as well as several key historical events that awakened the American public’s interest in organic food. The Organic Center calls Lipson “the primary midwife” of the California Organic Foods Act (COFA) of 1990, sponsored by then-State Assemblymember Sam Farr. Recalling his work with Lipson on COFA, Sam Farr remarked (in his oral history in this series), “I tell the world that the organic movement started in California, in Santa Cruz County, and the guru of that is Mark [Lipson].”

Over the past two decades with OFRF (an organization which he helped to found), Lipson shepherded several historic changes in agricultural funding through Congress, such as a 2008 Farm Bill that secures a five-fold increase in government funding for organic research (though this still represents only one percent of the USDA’s research budget). He is perhaps best known as the author of the 1997 study Searching for the ‘O-Word’, which documented the absence of publicly funded organic research at a critical political moment in the trajectory of the organic farming movement.

Lipson chaired the California Organic Foods Advisory Board from 1991 to 1998. In 1992, he received the annual Sustie (“Steward of Sustainable Agriculture”) Award, presented at the Ecological Farming Conference, and in 2009 Nutrition Business Journal gave him their Organic Excellence award.

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