By John O’Connell
Intermountain Farm and Ranch
IDAHO FALLS — For half a century, Joyce Thiel has made every day of potato harvest like a holiday for her workers.
The harvesters and transloaders shut down before 12:30 p.m. so the field hands can dust themselves off, take off their shoes at the door and come inside her spacious home for a long lunch break and another memorable feast.
To Thiel, 76, holidays are about spending time with family, and the workers who help bring in the potato crop every year definitely qualify. To make them feel appreciated, she gets up early each harvest morning and cooks entrees and an assortment of side dishes from scratch.
"I have been cooking for them for 50 years," Thiel said. "I can't believe it but it's true."
Staple meals include turkey, ham, roast beef, pork ribs and several different chicken dishes. She jokes that spaghetti is her easy day.
She dishes out squash and other vegetables from her garden. She bakes pies and other desserts on the night before each feast; rolls are set out to rise after dawn.
Several of her workers insist they come each fall specifically because of the meals.
"You just never felt right asking family to bring their lunch," Thiel said.
It usually takes the Thiel family about two weeks to harvest all of their spuds. This season, they dug them all in a single week, having cut their potato acreage in response to lost processing contracts amid the pandemic.
Typically, about a dozen workers dine together around a large table. This year, to maintain a safe distance due to COVID-19, she seated the group at scattered locations throughout her house.
Thiel grew up on a Roberts farm that her grandparents homesteaded in 1902. During her childhood they farmed with teams of horses, raising cattle and about 300 acres of crops.
"I used to catch the horses for my dad," Thiel said. "If my dad went out, they'd run away, but they used to come to me."
Thiel married into another farming family. She and her husband Louis have lived in their current location in the New Sweden area, located a few miles west of downtown Idaho Falls, for 48 years. Louis has served on the New Sweden Irrigation Board for about 40 years.
Thiel explained her husband's stepmother used to cook for the crew while they worked the potato fields. Thiel eventually assumed those cooking duties.
Retaining harvest help has never been a challenge for the Thiels.
"One of my dear girlfriends worked in the cellar for us for 40 years. Another girlfriend of mine, she rode the combine for probably around 20 years," Thiel said.
Several local retired people come and help drive potato trucks. Their farm manager, Frank Eckersell — revered for his ability to plant a picture-perfect field of row crops — has worked for the family for 43 years.
In the early 2000s, a neighbor marveled at how straight the rows were in one of Louis' fields and asked him what kind of GPS unit he'd purchased. Louis laughed and responded that he had an Eckersell.
"We think of him as a son," Thiel said. "And he's superb."
Eckersell's brother-in-law makes an annual trip from Portland, Ore., to drive a truck for the Thiel harvest.
"He always said, 'As long as Joyce cooks, I'll come down from Portland and drive,'" Thiel said.
Not to be left out, Eckersell's mother also spent years helping out at harvest, and his brother joined the harvest team about five years ago.
A few neighboring farmers who weren't raising potatoes this year also helped the Thiels with this fall's spud harvest.
Thiel's lavish harvest lunches are well known throughout the New Sweden area. Another local farmer, Matt Gellings, described Thiel as a legend in her own time.
"There are a lot of guys when there's an opportunity to go to work for them during the harvest, they jump on it because of that lunch," Gellings said. "As far as stopping the whole operation for two hours and everybody goes in and takes their shoes off and washes up and sits around the table, I just don't know of anybody else who's doing that."
Thiel and her husband rent their 420 acres of cropland to their sons, Marc and Ryan, who have a partnership and farm about 1,250 acres. Their family also collectively runs about 120 head of mother cows.
Despite the hard work at harvest time and the often harsh elements, Marc looked forward to potato harvest every fall throughout his childhood.
"I think it was her cooking," Marc said. "The crew and the lunch always made it fun."
Last season, the sudden arrival of bad weather limited Thiel to cooking just two big meals for her workers, who skipped most lunches and continued harvesting for hours on end to beat the arrival of a damaging frost.
Nonetheless, Marc said his mother put her culinary skills to good use, delivering cookies, brownies and coffee out to the fields.
Thiel believes coming together for large harvest dinners is a dying tradition, but it's one that's well worth preserving.
"I think it makes them know that they are truly appreciated and we really value their helping us and working for us," Thiel said. "And we value them as friends as well as workers."