Potato Man, Gene Thiel

This article was originally published in the 2006 Menu Guide. Gene passed away yesterday and we offer our deepest sympathies to his family and the food community in Portland.genetheil

Meet Gene Thiel, a potato farmer from Joseph, Oregon. The charming small town of Joseph is 330 miles east and slightly north of Portland, which equals a 5 to 6 hour drive. Nevertheless, Gene and, along with either his wife or his son, commutes into Portland weekly in order to provide many of our high-end restaurants with organically grown and carefully harvested potatoes, beets, carrots, mushrooms, onions and garlic. Many restaurants depend on Gene to ensure they have great produce — if Gene and his products weren’t available our restaurateurs might find themselves in a difficult situation. The gnocchi at Fratelli would not be quite as good if 
they had to scramble to 
replace Gene’s potatoes. His 
potatoes are remarkable — one 
can almost feel a life force from them that is clearly absent from mass produced spuds. Gene is (of course) an organic farmer, and since he’s been in farming all of his seventy-one years, he has seen farming practices change away from traditional organic farming to industrialized farming, and he now finds that the pendulum is swinging again, (thankfully), toward organic and local farms. Portland is a city that embraces its local, organic fare, in spite of the fact that we still have chain restaurants and mega-grocery stores who offer up food for those who may forget to ask, “Where did this potato come from?”

Gene embodies a wealth of knowledge about organic farming — he has been producing healthy food all his working life. He also remembers how non-organic farming practices came about. He explained to me that natural farming was the norm in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s. Then after WWII, the bomb manufacturers had leftover chemicals that were discovered to kill bacteria and bugs on our crops. Today these chemicals have been transformed into fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. While farmers were skeptical about using chemicals, they were persuaded by the fact that they could increase their production, and decrease pests and other ailments. However such practices, as we now realize, come at a huge cost to the land and to future generations; our children and grandchildren. As Gene makes clear, what was happening to the land was that it was becoming ‘used up’. There are dead areas of land right now, throughout the earth, as a result of industrialized farming practices. In effect these areas can no longer support living creatures. For instance, the Gulf of Mexico has 200 dead zones because of farming practices in Texas, Louisiana and other Gulf states.

Gene loves the fact that he can sell his food in Portland, where there is a deep commitment to the quality of food and lifestyle. He loves the fact that our up and coming chefs are borderline fanatical about using local and organic goods. You can do your part by questioning your food sources. Before you mindlessly eat that fry — stop and ask, “Where did this potato come from?” -Cheleen Mahar