Rock star turned soil scientist channels ‘resistance’ through organic farming

James Cassidy points out crops on the Oregon State University Organic Growers Club farm.

James Cassidy has worn many hats as a rock star, farmer and soil scientist. On a recent Tuesday in July, he wore a lime green fedora with a single avocado earring and dirt-stained jeans.

In the ‘80s, Cassidy traveled the world performing with his rock band, Information Society. He entered academia in his 30s as a college freshman. There, he found his passion. Today he teaches soil science at Oregon State University and helps manage an organic farm on campus.

In 2002, Cassidy attended a meeting hosted by three other Oregon State graduate students who wanted to expand access to organic foods. After playing in a rock band, Cassidy said he could relate to “young people trying to agitate for change.”

That grew into the school’s Organic Growers Club, which has been meeting every Thursday night since its inception. In the beginning, there were only seven participants. Now, around 70 people come together each week to plant, harvest and package a variety of fruits and vegetables. Cassidy has led the effort for more than 20 years.

With no financial support from the university, Cassidy maintains his crops and interns’ stipends by selling community supported agriculture boxes, delivering fresh organic produce to paying community members.

On the farm, about 20 cardboard boxes are lined up under a handwritten list of names taped to the wall. Recipients include the OSU student food pantry and a traveling Samaritan Health Services doctor who brings food to patients on house visits.

A report produced for Business Oregon this year found that only 10 to 16% of organic food products are locally sourced.

Rebecca Landis, market director of Corvallis-Albany Farmers’ Markets, said that even though locally grown produce is sometimes cheaper than conventional, pricing can still be a perceived barrier, particularly for people who struggle to pay for housing and other necessities.

Farmers like Cassidy help fill the need for fresh local produce. He also teaches classes about organic gardening, including courses such as Soil Science and Organic Farming and Gardening, at Oregon State.

James Cassidy holds a bundle of carrots that will be packaged for the Oregon State University Organic Growers Club’s Community Supported Agriculture program, which delivers fresh organic produce to paying community members.

Back on the farm, he pointed out several varieties of onions, carrots, and potatoes. Volunteers harvest plants for different seasons, Cassidy explained. Planning for the future, he makes sure that there will be enough canned or preserved fruits and vegetables for CSA boxes outside of the growing season.

Cassidy, who refers to himself as a “benevolent cult leader,” has recruited generations of students. As a former student of the university, he knows many freshmen want to make a change.

He encourages his soil science students to join the Organic Growers Club, which is a pipeline into working as a volunteer or intern on the farm.

From creating music with his band to growing organic foods, subverting societal expectations has been a consistent theme in Cassidy’s work. At the farm, there are likely to be computer science and economics students harvesting produce or pulling weeds alongside what Cassidy describes as “hippie kids.”

Interns and people visiting the farm often stop him to seek guidance. He is happy to dispense wisdom.

Cassidy spun a small weed faster and faster between his fingers as he said that soil is the foundation of farming, and farming the foundation of most everything else.

“There weren’t heart surgeons before agriculture,” said Cassidy. He explains that after the development of agriculture, humans were able to settle in place and develop cultures, arts and professions.

“Soil science is everything,” he said. “Every atom in your body has been through the soil system.”

He added that large farming companies have a powerful influence over our access to food. Because of this, he said “gardening is an act of resistance or activism. Gardening is a ritual, a spiritual practice.”

According to Cassidy, everyone can take part in this resistance.

“Just garden,” he said. “Even if you live on the 60th floor in a Manhattan apartment.”

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/Oregon Live, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to