In another life Bernie Thiel might have made a decent living as a riverboat gambler.
In the life he has, he exorcises his high- stakes demons earning a living growing and selling vegetables.
“I don't grow on contract,” Thiel says from his Sunburst Farms office in Lubbock, Texas.
“It's a gamble, but it takes a lot of risks to grow vegetables and I want to get every penny I can out of them. I want to be on the open market. I enjoy selling, taking care of business and satisfying customers.”
Thiel runs the farm and another in South Texas that allows him to produce 12 months a year, along with his brother Leo and sister Margaret Smith. They grow zucchini and yellow squash, onions, edible peas and turnips. They grow other vegetable to sell in a retail produce store they operate across the road from farm headquarters.
Thiel says risks don't stop with markets. This year, late summer rains turned daily squash harvest into a soggy mess.
“It rained for most of a week,” Thiel says. “But we have not missed a single day picking squash since we started in May. Customers want the product whether it's raining or not. We picked in the rain, with rain coats and four-wheel drive vehicles.”
He's particularly proud of an old military two-and-half ton truck that hauls crates of squash out of sodden fields.
Picking in the rain is no big deal, he says. “I've done it all my life. Squash is very perishable so we have to handle it with kid gloves and pick it when it's ready.” Missing a day's harvest leaves a lot of good fruit on the vine and a lot of money in the field, Thiel says.
“Quality is essential. That's why we pick every day and why we've gone five months without missing a day. We're lucky to have people willing to pick in wet weather,” he says. “But they come every day because we do. We have to be here so they can work.”
Thiel uses migrant labor to fill out his nine crews and employs about 40 workers in all.
“I respect these people,” he says. “I love them. They show up every day and that's why we're able to provide a quality product.”
He hopes he's able to keep these workers coming and that overly stringent immigration laws won't reduce his workforce. He admits that labor provides another risk factor to his operation.
“Labor is the key,” he says. “It's hard to have 2,000 boxes of squash in the field and not be certain of labor.”
Some of his crew members have come from Mexico to work for him for 25 years. “They are good people,” he says.
He's tried to hire local workers but without success. He advertised for several weeks in local media outlets for help. Few applied and none stayed for more than a few days.
Thiel encourages his migrant workers by offering plenty of over time and a bonus if they stay all season.
He's convinced that some sort of guest worker program will be necessary to allow vegetable producers and others in labor-intensive agriculture to compete.
Vegetable production and marketing, he says, depends on consistent supply of high quality produce. He sells to large retailers such as Albertson's and Wal-Mart, among others, so reputation makes a difference.
“I've been here since 1971,” Thiel says. ‘I've spent that time building relationships and I never burn bridges.”