OSU instructor James Cassidy wants you to start seeing soil. This human frequently reminds people that all culture comes from agriculture. We all start with and eventually return to soil.
“Every molecule, every atom in your body has been through the soil, billions of times and the fact that you’re not soil this moment is a temporary condition,” Cassidy said. “I mean, it’s all about soil.”
Cassidy is a familiar site on the OSU campus and the Corvallis Community with his signature fedora hats and “Soil” graphic t-shirts. As a Crop and Soil Science Instructor at OSU, he not only teaches soil, but is the faculty advisor to the OSU Organic Growers Club, founded the student organic farm, and runs a popular Community Supported Agriculture program.
While Cassidy’s soil science accomplishments are in themselves impressive, science and agriculture are his second act, as they say. Cassidy’s first act was as an international electronic pop musician with the band Information Society, sometimes known as InSoc.
InSoc is best known for their single “What’s On Your Mind? (Pure Energy)” that was certified Gold in January 1989 after selling more than 500,000 copies. They also reached mainstream pop success with other top forty hits including “Walking Away” and “Think.” Over the years, the band recorded at least seven studio albums not including singles, compilations, and remixes.
Diffuser FM included InSoc in their top ten Minneapolis bands alongside other Minnesota artists like Prince, The Jayhawkes, and the Replacements. Their name graces a star outside Minneapolis’ famous nightclub First Avenue.
A Life in Pop and Electronic Music
Cassidy developed an interest in music at an early age and started learning to play his first instrument – the banjo – at the age of 13. He grew up listening to progressive jazz as well as popular music including Kiss – the first concert he recalled attending.
Throughout high school, he played in a few bands in the New Brighton, Minn. area including a couple of bands with future InSoc members Paul Robb and Kurt Harland Larson.
Shortly after high school, Robb and Larson formed InSoc. They invited Cassidy to play banjo at one of their gigs including a solo in their cover of James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing.” This arrangement was fully electric so Cassidy’s banjo added an unexpected twist. Not long after, he joined the band and has been with them ever since.
Members of InSoc created electronic dance and pop music inspired by bands like Kraftwerk, Yello, and Devo. They also drew from African American musical influences including Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force as well other jazz and funk artists. Cassidy credits this mix as part of the reason the band remains popular in Brazil and South America. InSoc was also credited with pioneering the incorporation of digital sampling.
Cassidy explained they were in many ways influenced by the second British invasion of electronic music: “Except we’re kids in Minnesota, the music was already kind of old and we had no context for what it was, but we tried to duplicate it, and in so doing it was misinterpreted … so, we’re kind of this weird, singular response in a way to the second British invasion and our music was just so different it was new.”
“Most musicians do this. They love the music and try to emulate it. But because you really can’t do that, you end up creating something else, Cassidy said. “That’s how art works. You reinterpret your heroes in some new way.”
The band didn’t find immediate success in Minneapolis. Performing electronic art and dance music wearing color coded jumpsuits for the same 200 people, they couldn’t get booked in some of the city’s bigger venues. They relocated to New York City and eventually signed with Tommy Boy Records which was acquired by Warner Brothers.
“There was a music scene in Minneapolis but everybody hated us,” Cassidy recalled. “After we had a big record and moved to New York, we went on tour and played the big club that we could never get a gig in to an audience that didn’t know we were a local band.”
Their fame peaked around 1991 when they performed for a crowd of 135,000 at the Rock in Rio II concert in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Information Society played in Maracanã stadium which is Brazil’s largest soccer stadium and the second largest in South America.
Headliners at the “Rock in Rio II” included Guns N’ Roses, Prince, and George Michael. Cassidy said the rising popularity of bands like Guns N’ Roses reflected the direction the music industry was moving. InSoc were on heavy rotation on MTV, but that started to dwindle. In 1993, Cassidy realized it was time to reinvent himself leading to his transition to soil science.
“You know, I realized the dreams of an 18-year-old by the time I was 30. So, when I decided to do something else, I really kind of psychologically had to become a different person in some ways,” he said. “And, you know, I was also just really interested in learning.”
Information Society reunited in 2007 and appeared in an episode of the VHS reality show “Bands Reunited.” That episode ignited a renewed interest in InSoc. They are still recording and creating new music, as well as touring when the members have time.
Getting Back to Nature and the Pivot to Soil Science
In 1993, it became clear to Cassidy that he needed a change, yet he wasn’t sure which way to go. At the time he was living in New York City, and his then-girlfriend suggested they visit the Brooklyn Public Library to research potential careers.
As far as he knew, no one in his family went to college and he didn’t see himself as “college material.” His father was a Top Fuel drag racer and his grandfather was a tattooed man circus performer.
At the library, Cassidy reflected on his earliest interests beyond music. He always enjoyed nature and spending time outside, and was interested in freshwater fish and water quality. He had fond memories of briefly living in Seattle when he was 20 years old, though he credits that to the fact the Pacific Northwest was so different from Minnesota. He learned of a fisheries management program at Mount Hood Community College and chose that path.
“I liked it and I was a straight A student for the first time in my life when I was 30,” Cassidy said.
After completing his associate degree, he transferred to the College of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University to complete his bachelor’s degree and eventually earned a Master’s in Soil Science.
Second Act: A Passion for Soil
“Most 17-18-year-olds don’t wake up saying, ‘Hey, I want to be a soil scientist,’” Cassidy said. “I mean, most people don’t even know about soil science.”
He first learned about soil science when he worked on a project collecting samples for Dr. Maria Dragila. She suggested he join her new research group and continue his studies. Cassidy went on to become Dragila’s first graduate student. He completed a Master’s degree and continued to work part time with the Soil Physics Laboratory as a Research Assistant – spending his spare time developing the student farm.
Cassidy taught his first class at OSU filling in for another faculty member. He stepped out into the auditorium full of students and realized teaching was a lot like performing. He knew how to connect with the audience, sharing a subject he felt passionate about.
“I believe my life is about service, and it’s service to students, and just fits so perfectly. Soil is such an endlessly fascinating subject. And it’s so critical to what’s going on on the planet right now and the kinds of problems that we have, you know, the solutions are in the soil for sure,” he said. “I happen to have a kind of a gift for teaching it. And I love it.”
While Cassidy was a graduate student, he was an early member of the OSU Organic Growers Club and he founded the student farm as an instructor.
Cassidy said his work managing the student farm and advising the OSU Organic Growers Club are the accomplishments that makes him feel most proud. He teaches an organic gardening class in the spring and hires some of the students to work on the student farm during the summer. They sell the organic produce grown through the OSU Organic Growers Club CSA. Proceeds support student scholarships.
Due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines he has to employ fewer students this year, but they are serving more subscribers. This year, they offer a whole food CSA in partnership with Sol Cycle Farm and DeArmond Road Farm that expanded to serve around 40 community members. The goal is for the CSA box to feed a family of four for one week. Cassidy said they are currently building their subscriber waiting list for next year and they will be offering donors the opportunity to sponsor a CSA box for a needy family.
“Students learn how to produce food and learn about philanthropy and a needy family gets top-flight organic fruit and veggies.” Cassidy said. “Interested customers could even get one for themselves and one for a needy family.”
Cassidy reflected on the hundreds of students who participated in the growers club and farm. He said he is still in touch with many. Some have gone on to become farmers or gardeners, while others went into other work with respect for the soil, sustainable food systems, and nature.
“The way we manage land, the way we do agriculture, all that stuff is absolutely critical going forward, if we’re gonna make it,” Cassidy said. “I just happen to be in this subject that happens to be the absolute most, most important thing.”
To learn more about the OSU Organic Growers Club CSA, visit their online store. They also have “Soil” graphic t-shirts for sale to support student scholarships. To join the CSA waiting list, use their contact form or message the OSU Organic Growers Club on Facebook.
By Samantha Sied