Organic farm expert goes green
after time as a Cal Tech bioengineer
By Tamra Watson
May 7, 2008 | Jeff Endelman grew up with a fear of
bugs and a dislike for dirty hands. He never went camping
when he was 3 years old, and enjoyed doing math problems
when he was 7.
Beyond playing T-ball and basketball, he learned how
to play a variety of musical instruments including the
piano, French horn, and percussion. As a teenager, he
became obsessed with his chemistry set, and entered
into many science fairs. He even competed in an academic
By the time Endelman reached college, he had decided
bioengineering was the "wave of the future"
and obtained a doctorate at California Institute of
Technology. He said he believed it was the only major
that combined his academic skills with his passion for
However upon finishing his thesis, Endelman felt like
bioengineering was "vacuous" or more bluntly
said, "empty-headed." For this reason, he
said he chose to exit his burnt-out lifestyle of city
and books, and trade it in for a life of small communities,
open fields, green vegetables and livestock.
In 2005, Dr. Endelman became an organic farmer.
Endelman's transformational choice will help bring
about similar changes on the campus of Utah State University
-- it's going organic just as he did. Under the direction
of USU Extension Specialist Dan Drost and Assistant
Professor Jennifer Reeve, Endelman will aid in the progression
of the organic farm by researching crop fertility.
Endelman would not be in his current position without
the aid of both destiny and free choice, he said. The
first opportunity to go organic came to meet him as
he sought opportunities to volunteer while attending
a community potluck dinner. He was directed to check
out a Web Site of the Community Supported Agriculture
(CSA) organization that grew vegetables for local families;
and his transformational choice came when he decided
to become a farmer and face all the doubts and criticisms
from his parents and friends.
"It was painful on the one hand," Endelman said, "but
in the end I met new people, developed new habits and
discovered there's a light at the end of the tunnel
if one perseveres." Similar dedications have been found
throughout the history of the organic farm movement.
The aim of the specific agricultural practice is "to
create integrated, humane, environmentally and economically
sustainable agriculture production systems," as defined
by the Institute of Rural Science, United Kingdom.
The application of the organic agriculture method
has been gradually progressing since the early 1920s
when commercialization of agriculture became a threat
to local communities, Reeve said.
The industrialization of agriculture evolved so quickly
that by the 1980s, farmers were being warned to "Get
Big or Get Out!" Such an attitude encouraged unhealthy
environmental practices that forced agriculturists to
achieve maximum yields year after year without soil
Farmers find themselves "trapped," between the two
issues, she said.
In a sense, many traditional farmers find themselves
influenced by their parental traditions, just like Endelman.
However, he said they can change just like he did.
"There comes a point in life where you recognize what
you've been handed, and determine whether you want to
continue on that same route," Endelman said.
Although his change of venue from genetic engineer
to farmer may seem like a sudden U-turn, Endelman said
his transformation was gradual.
In 2004, as a graduate student he joined the CSA movement;
the system is designed to aid farmers in directly marketing
their products to the consumers he said. As one of their
customers he received a box of vegetables every week
from Tierra Miguel Farms, in San Diego County, Calif.,
he said. A few months later he found himself volunteering
at the farm and learning the basics of organic farming.
He continued to work there until his graduation in 2005.
However, when Endelman finished school, he decided
not to pursue his career in genetic engineering; instead
he moved to Sacramento Calif. to work as a farmhand
for Harald Hoven at the Rudolf Steiner College. As a
one-year intern, Endelman received free housing, food
and $250 a month, in exchange for his labor on the farm
"In hindsight, I realize how much I grew during those
months," Endelman said.
Growth came in the daily activities of milking. In
the first couple of weeks on the farm, Bella, a dairy
cow, took full advantage of his green farming skills.
Sensing his lack of confidence, she paced side to side
whenever he reached under her to milk.
"Sometimes she walked over the top of me, or kicked
the milk bucket over," he said.
However the experience gave Endelman "remarkably fast
reflexes" allowing him to move the milk can at a "drop
of a hoof," he said.
Bella is part of the 1 percent of organically grown
dairy cows raised in the United States, according to
the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She is not fed any
extra vitamins to enhance her milk production; instead
she is allowed free pasture to munch daily. Any supplemental
feed Bella eats is also organically grown. All of these
rules and regulations are outlined in the USDA National
The system also requires the use of natural material
for soil improvement instead of synthetic fertilizers.
Endelman shoveled plenty of manure and carried it 25
to 30 feet to the farm's vegetable beds.
Such organic practices make the soil healthier, Reeve
said. The use of natural matter helps enhance the soil
and the plants grown in it. Most research conducted
through compost testing reveals organic farming to be
more environmentally sustainable, she said.
Studies have also revealed organic farming to be better
for the land due to its reduced pesticide use, she said.
Traditionally farmers have the tendency "to see one
little bug and douse the field in chemicals," Reeve
said. These practices leave strong residues in the soil
and reduce soil quality.
Due to the reduction in soil health, the organic movement
is working on developing softer pesticides, with lower
residues. With the development of such products, Reeve
said the expensive chemicals will be eliminated and
farmers will be able to reduce their overall input costs,
and make their operations more profitable.
Education is the key to making these changes, Reeve
said. Farming well, in a way to create land resilient
to pests requires a lot of knowledge, she said.
Endelman set out to develop this understanding the
moment he started to farm. He said learning the inner
aspects of farm, even though he wanted to curse at the
cow at times, was the only way to really comprehend
However, he said the responsibility to learn about
agriculture does not only rest with the farmer, Endelman
said. "Consumers need to start visiting and getting
involved where their food is grown. Only then are we
going to truly have a sustainable agriculture system
in this country."
Citizens have many chances to support organic farming
through local farmers markets, Reeve said.
"I don't understand why someone would buy their summer
veggies in the stores of Cache Valley when the farmer's
market is cheaper, fresher and yummier," she said.
Part of the reason, she said is many associate the
organic farming with the hippie movement, yet such perceptions
blind people from the real benefits of organic agriculture,
she said. One of these benefits is to stimulate the
local economy. "Why buy tomatoes from Mexico or California,
or wherever, when they are grown right here?" she said.
Endelman and Reeve hope to create lasting agricultural
change in the Cache Valley through the development of
the USU Organic Farm. Who knows, they might even find
their strongest members among those who hate to get
their hands dirty and have a fear of bugs.