"Potato man," someone in the crowd of 20,000 people at the Portland Farmers' Market, will call out to Gene Thiel of Joseph.
They might not recall his name.
But they remember his healthy and tasty organic produce grown up near the end of the road in Northeast Oregon.
Every week year round, for more than four years, Thiel has driven his 1989 green Suburban to the farmers' market in Portland's Park Blocks, near Portland State University.
Thiel also has a tight, efficient route of 30 Portland restaurants he delivers to.
"They've come to consider us like their mailman," Thiel's son, Patrick, said.
"You need a metropolitan center of a million or more people to support an operation like mine," Gene Thiel said.
"The Portland market is, per capita, probably among the best in the West for this type of production," he said.
"The product really sells itself," he said about the aroma, taste and health factors apparent to customers.
"It's all directly tied to (customer) loyalty," he said about achieving success in a market far away.
There is more demand for his produce than he can grow, he said. His is a growth industry.
Organic since '71
Thiel has been farming organically since 1971. His operation has been officially certified as organic for about eight years.
"Organic is completely different from commercial agriculture," he said. "No synthetic products are used on the land."
Industrial chemicals used in commercial farming can create a mineral and biological imbalance, he said. And, there can be side effects, such as toxicity, Thiel added. In response to chemical application, some weeds can eventually become herbicide resistant, he said, and chemical application can deplete the soil.
"Farmers do care for the land," Thiel said.
Some commercial farmers are just sick about what they have to do to the land, he added.
However, their land would have to be free of synthetics for three years before they could become certified as organic.
Thiel was the first in the West to become a certified organic farmer. He was the first one to sell produce in Seattle's Pike Place Market.
"It's a fun market. I used to go there with a little truck," he said.
Another difference about Thiel's operation is that it requires a tremendous amount of physical labor, he said. Gardeners will do it this way, but not many farmers will, he said.
At age 68, he can still outwork two kids, his wife, Eileen, said.
Organic is a process of farming that will build the soil quality so it's balanced and healthy, rather than depleted, to sustain production, Patrick Thiel said. "Over time it's easier to manage."
slow food movement
Gene Thiel has been determined to farm this way for the land and the product to be healthy, Patrick said. He would not compromise, and that ultimately made him an influence.
Gene was invited to the state Capitol to give a deposition on
the Oregon organic farming
He is also having his way paid to the Terra Madre world meeting of food communities Oct. 20-23 in Turin, Italy.
It's the first time in history that farmers from different countries have come together on their own, as opposed to government agencies being involved, Thiel said.
The right place
Thiel feels fortunate to have found land to lease that has been farmed since the 1940s without the use of industrial chemicals such as herbicides or pesticides.
"And, it shows in the health of the products," he said.
The Class I glacial soil is optimum for root vegetables, he said. The 4,300-foot elevation and the cooler climate also lends itself to such production.
The Willamette Valley can't grow some varieties of produce that are as tasty as Thiel's, he said.
A risky venture
Farming organically can be risky. You could lose a carrot crop to weed infestation in three days, he said.
Columbia Basin potato farmers apply 265 pounds of fungicide per acre, he said.
Boosting the plant health, though, is better than a fungicide, Patrick said.
"We use the (natural) things that a potato uses to protect itself."
It's an ongoing learning process, Thiel said, and you have to be as astute as any other businessman.
This includes having a business plan of where and how to plant, and how much to plant. You have to have a blueprint of the whole field, he said.
On 60 acres, Thiel raises 15 beet varieties in 10 colors, and eight varieties of carrots in red, yellow, white, orange and purple. He raises dutch yellow potatoes and some all blue potatoes.
"The more blue, the higher the antioxidants," he said.
"Seed searching is fun," he said about spending hours perusing 20 seed catalogs, tracing pedigrees and backgrounds.
One new item he's trying this year is okra tubers. Another is parsnips. He also grew his first rat tail radishes this year.
"I used to see them at Pike's market 30 years ago," he said.
Its own reward Raising sustainable artisan food can be its own reward.
It's not uncommon for his produce to command five times the price of other vegetables.
However, money is not his prime motivator.
Really rewarding to Thiel is being a good steward and the consumer praise he receives.
It's not unusual for "Potato Man" to hear from a chef that someone burst into his kitchen exclaiming, "How did you do that?"