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Sunburst Farms and Bernie Thiel earn 2013 Texas Vegetable Association Award of Merit

Anyone who knows Bernie Thiel knows he was born to farm. Anyone who doesn’t found out in August when Thiel and his Sunburst Farms near Lubbock, TX, were honored with the 2013 Texas Vegetable Association Award of Merit at the Texas Produce Convention in San Antonio.

Thiel typically attends the Texas Produce Convention alone. This year his entire family was on hand for the festivities. It was fortuitous timing.

“I could not ask for more,” Thiel said. “To have my whole family here is reward enough, but to be recognized by my peers is just really special.”

It was the culmination of a 40-year career that actually began in 1939 when Thiel’s five potato-farming uncles moved from Idaho to Hereford, TX.

“They loaded up a John Deere B tractor and a two-row planter and came down to West Texas. They landed there that winter and damned if they didn’t plant a crop — 2,000 acres of potatoes,” Thiel said. “It’s an old story, but if my uncles had just a little bit more sense about business and had bought more land I’d have probably be useless now because I wouldn’t have to work. They farmed land that no one could have farmed. Nobody worked harder than these guys and that’s a fact. Some of the things they’d do for fun is see who could throw a 100-pound sack of potatoes the highest.”

Thiel’s father joined the family business, but he had a wanderer’s heart.

“Dad was just a farmer at heart but he was a little adventurous at the same time. He went to Guatemala to farm a couple of years, he’d gone several places to do some farming, but we always ended up back here in West Texas. He farmed with his brothers quite a while then went out on his own when my brothers and sisters — five boys and four girls — got old enough to help,” Thiel said.

But his brothers and sisters turned out to be less help than Thiel himself. “Basically I guess I was the farmer at heart and kind of took over and got the thing ramrodding. We started out right here where the office is now, leased the place in 1970 and had our first crop in ’71 and have been here ever since. We started with 20 acres and we’ve got 800-900 acres now. Basically, we just grow squash and zucchini and turnips, we rotate with cotton and wheat and row crops here and in Carizzo Springs, TX.”

The Thiel family also operates Sunburst Farms Market in Lubbock, a true local farmers market that has been a Lubbock favorite for more than 10 years with a selection of vegetables — tomatoes, eggplant, okra, melons, black-eyed peas and others — Thiel grows basically for fun.

Thiel’s humility and Texas twang are genuine but they are a front for a man who is in reality a modern agronomist. Food safety is paramount at Sunburst Farms and the operation uses modern growing methods like drip irrigation, pivots and LEPA (low energy precise application) irrigation. Sunburst Farms clientele includes Texas’ top retailers and distributors.

Thiel has also been president of the Texas Vegetable Association “a couple of times and I’ve been involved in the Farm Bureau for many years now. I just feel like if you’re gonna be in the business you’ve got to be involved. My little business here which I have, I just feel like you’ve got to be represented in some fashion or form and if you don’t do it, who’s gonna do it? You’ve got to get out there and let yourself be heard. And I like to know what’s going on in the business, politically, because it affects us all. Regardless of what you think, it does affect you.”

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