08 August 2013

Remembering Gene Thiel

Photo by Siobhan Higgins

Photo by Siobhan Higgins

Gene Thiel, 1936-2013

Last week, when Gene Thiel of Prairie Creek Farm passed away at the age of 77, Oregon lost a great man, farmer, poet, storyteller and beloved member of the Portland food community.  A longtime fixture at Portland Farmers Market, Gene was known for his passion…and his potatoes.  Even those that didn’t know Gene Thiel by name knew of his potatoes.  Each week, shoppers would stop by the information booth asking whether the “Potato Man” was at the market–and he was, every weekend for as long as his health allowed him to.

For years, Gene made the 650 mile round-trip trek from his family’s farm in Joseph, Oregon, to offer his dirt-encrusted gems to an appreciative crowd each weekend at the PSU Market.  He loved to feed people the food he had grown and foraged, and hearing how much customers loved his food fed him in return.  A while ago, when we asked Gene what he enjoyed most about being a vendor at the market, he told us, “For a farmer, getting to know your customers and hear how much they appreciate your work … it just doesn’t get any better.”

Gene was born into farming.  He took what he learned at his family’s farm in Idaho and brought it to Eastern Oregon, where he, his wife Eileen and four children—Juli, Amy, Martin and Patrick—put down roots and, eventually, root crops. Gene was one of the early champions of the organic farming movement and through his involvement with organizations like Oregon Tilth and Slow Food, spread the word about organic farming and even helped put policies in place concerning organic food labeling in Oregon.

Gene Thiel was a true steward of the land. Even if you had met him in a city street, far from the fields he tended, you would have known he was a farmer.  It was his hands.  His hands were the clear giveaway: rugged, capable, crusted with dirt, these hands were meant to dig treasures from the earth and forest floor.  Thank you for feeding us and inspiring us, Gene.  You will be dearly missed.

Gene’s son, Patrick, will continue his father’s legacy at Prairie Creek Farm and plans to continue to bring farmed and foraged goods to the PSU Market each week.  If you would like to share your thoughts or memories with the family, you may send them to Eileen Thiel, PO Box 549, Joseph, Oregon.

The Portland food community will also be coming together to host a memorial dinner in honor of Gene.  The dinner—organized by Chefs Vitaly Paley (Paley’s Place and Imperial) and Courtney Sproule (din din) in collaboration with more than 30 local chefs and bartenders—will serve as a much-needed fundraiser for the Thiel family.

The memorial dinner will be held on August 20 at Imperial restaurant at Hotel Lucia. The 6-course family feast (all courses will be served family style) starts promptly at 6:30pm at the Imperial Monteroso room. The evening will also feature a cocktail hour complete with appetizer buffet and welcome cocktails. Tickets are offered on a sliding scale of $100-250/meal (wine and gratuity included) and all proceeds will benefit the Thiel family. Reservations can be made by calling 503-228-7222. If unable to attend the dinner, donations to the Gene Thiel family fund can also be made by contacting Imperial at 503-228-7222.

For more information about the dinner and to see the participating chefs, click here.