Where hope blooms
Endeavour Shen's parents sent him to America from Taiwan when he was 9 to seek a better life. He lived alone from 11 to 13. The U.S. military gave him purpose. Now he has his own family, a business and hope.
By Judy Farah
The Shen family gathers at South Coast Orchids in Vista. From left, Zechariah, Kolton, Deborah, Endeavour and Josephine. Photo: © 2021 Rob Andrew
By Judy Farah
Endeavour Shen had to pivot, fast, when his business world came crashing to a halt last March on, symbolically, Friday the 13th. One of his top clients, the Escondido School District in San Diego County, canceled all orders for the butter lettuce served each week in its healthy lunch program. The coronavirus had shut down schools throughout the district, which used the lettuce Shen grows at his Sundial Farm in nearby Vista. Next came canceled orders for the specialty orchids grown at Shen's other farm, South Coast Orchids, from high-end floral clients, including several Ritz-Carlton hotels in Southern California, Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and event planners and home stagers in Los Angeles. In a typical year, Shen would sell 3,600 heads of 23 different varieties of leafy greens and 10,000 orchids each week. "In a day, it went to zero. Everything went down to zero at one time," he recalled. "I had over 6,000 to 7,000 orchids blooming." That meant he had to change his business model on the fly. He started selling his lettuce online, then added goods from other local farmers along with some Asian products, and allowed his customers to customize their food boxes. Soon, he was busy enough to bring his staff back. "It was almost like starting a brand-new business," he said. A child on his own If there's anyone who has had to adjust to challenging circumstances, it's Shen. That began in earnest at age 9, when his parents sent him and his 13-year-old brother to live in the U.S. due to political unrest in their native Taiwan. The boys moved in with distant relatives in Miami, who changed Shen's name from Shen Yen Ting to the Americanized "Jeff" and put him to work at a restaurant they owned. The brothers ended up sleeping in a closet at the restaurant until the group moved to Illinois. When Shen's brother took the family car for a joy ride, the angry relatives sent the older boy back to Taiwan and soon returned to Taiwan themselves, leaving Shen alone in the house. He was 11, and lived alone for two years. "I had to learn to cook at a young age, do my own laundry and walk to school," Shen said. "It was bad during Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays." There was a part of Shen that wanted to succeed for his parents, who'd sought a better life for him in America. So, he endured. After living alone in Illinois, Shen spent time with a family in Texas and was on his own again at 17. When he was 21, the events of 9/11 prompted him to enlist in the military. The U.S. Navy sent him to Iraq, where he trained to be a Navy SEAL and sought citizenship. A back injury thwarted his SEAL dream, but not his dream of citizenship. During the naturalization ceremony, Shen was told he could pick any name he wanted. He chose Endeavour because he was reading a book about British navigator James Cook and his explorations aboard the HMS Endeavour. He became Endeavour Shen, U.S. citizen.
Learning to farm
Shen is new to farming. During his four years in the Navy, he worked as a religious program specialist, assisting chaplains, followed by civilian work as an accountant while selling real estate on the side. Although he was moving billion-dollar accounts, Shen said he was tired of "looking at numbers all day" and ready to move from the corner office to hands-on farming.
"I just wanted to be able to go outside," he said. "Being in the military, you just want to be outdoors more often and be able to touch things and do things."
Shen's military service offered him the GI Bill and the opportunity to take a four-month night class on hydroponic farming taught by an ex-Marine under the Archi's Acres program for military veterans. Shen started small, by growing basil. He soon needed more land and ended up buying South Coast Orchids from the man who'd owned the business for 38 years. There was one problem: Shen knew nothing about orchids.
"It was just like jumping in, gung ho-ing it and try to figure it out," he said, laughing.
From bad luck to hope The previous owner stayed for six months to teach Shen, and Shen opened for his first day of business on Nov. 1, 2016. The first month was fine, he said, but then everything went wrong. It rained for 20 days when an El Niño weather system hit, blocking the sunlight the orchids needed to bloom. His truck's engine blew up with 800 orchids inside. Shen, knowing adversity, pressed on. His old accounting firm sold him an SUV that he still uses, and his wife put a cross on a chain around the vehicle's rearview mirror. That's when Shen, who'd become a Christian as a young man, said he received a sign on his greenhouse door. "There's one day, a Saturday, and I'm really frustrated. I mean, I just started a business and opened the door," he said. "And then, literally, I'm looking at a shadow of the cross. You're talking about a car that's 60 feet away from the greenhouse and the shadow was able to project right in the center of the door. It broke me down." The sign, he said, convinced him to continue.
Growing orchids and leafy greens Shen specializes in growing orchid varieties imported from Taiwan that produce more flowers than typical orchids, bloom longer and can have double stems. Before the pandemic, he had as many as 50,000 plants in his greenhouses at one time. The orchids, which are grown in plastic containers on tables and watered by hand, usually take five months to spike and bloom into cascading waterfalls of color. Shen shared a secret for his orchids' success: He sings to them. With South Coast Orchids going well, Shen purchased the adjacent land and started Sundial Farm, where he grows leafy greens hydroponically. Hydroponics is a process by which plants are grown in nutrient-rich water rather than soil. His plants are suspended in growing trays using PVC pipes. Water is filtered five times, then runs through the plants on a tilted table and is recycled. The technique allows more produce to be grown in a smaller space with less water. Shen's crops at Sundial Farm include kale, arugula, red leaf lettuce and mustard greens. His specialty is butter lettuce, brimming with big, green leaves. He also grows Asian vegetables such as bok choy and napa cabbage—a nod to his heritage of growing up in Taiwan. "I love farming because of the plants that you grow," he said. "It's amazing. From that little seed, in two months' time, it's harvested and good for people."
Full circle Shen often reflects on his youth and the hardships he faced. He now has a son, Zechariah, who is 12, the same age he was when he lived alone. Shen and his wife, Deborah, have two other children: Josephine, 9, and 1-year-old Kolton. Before the pandemic, Shen would often have schoolchildren visit to learn about his business. He said his dream is to someday run an orphanage. "I want to raise up, help people that are alone, especially kids," he said. "I've been there and I want to do something for them. I have all this experience that I would love to share with them. I think that would be a really good full circle for everybody."
Helping veterans become farmers Endeavour Shen is one of thousands of farmers nationwide who have benefited from the services of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which helps military veterans transition to a career in agriculture. The FVC is a national nonprofit based in Sacramento, dedicated to helping veterans become providers of the nation's food and fiber. Members have the opportunity through affiliated organizations to learn all aspects of farming, including growing, harvesting and maintaining a budget. FVC says veterans in all 50 states have become successful vegetable farmers, cattle ranchers, beekeepers, flower growers, hydroponic farmers and more through its services, which are available to any veteran or active-duty military member who wants to start a career in agriculture. Many of the veterans currently in the program were severely injured during their service or suffer from PTSD. Homegrown by Heroes, a branding program administered by FVC, certifies farmers and ranchers of all military eras to sell their products as veteran-owned and -operated. Use of the label allows veterans, including Shen, who grows vegetables and orchids, to differentiate their agricultural products in the market.
This story first appeared in the January/February issue of California Bountiful.