|Don Armstrong displays the giant cabbages harvested by members of Tillamook (Ore.) Council 2171 at the half-acre garden they cultivate for charity. This year, the garden yielded more than 15,000 pounds of fresh produce for distribution to the needy. (photo by Curtis Miller)
At 9 a.m. on Sept. 10, 86-year-old Don Armstrong is elbow deep in Oregon coastal loam, yanking out russet potatoes. Eight hours later, 57-year-old widow Paula Taylor will leave her parish food bank with a sack of the sizable spuds to feed her family.
Taylor’s bag is a small part of the more than 15,000 pounds of produce that was grown and donated this year by members of Tillamook (Ore.) Council 2171, based at Sacred Heart Church.
“I love fresh food. It tastes real,” said Taylor, who worked on a farm in the past and knows how hard the labor can be. “I think what these men do is a beautiful thing.”
The Tillamook Knights’ third annual harvest yielded an increased charitable output, about 1,000 more pounds than last season. This year, the heaviest head of cabbage alone was a 24-pound whopper.
The project falls under the Order’s Food for Families initiative, in which the Supreme Council refunds $100 to local councils for every 500 pounds of food they donate to local charities. It’s an incentive created in 2012 in response to increasing needs of communities.
“Things like this help people. It also keeps you moving,” said Armstrong, who gets huffing when he labors but is still fit. He has spent his life as a commercial fisherman, a millwright and a flight instructor. A Tillamook native and Catholic school graduate, Armstrong has been a Knight for nearly seven decades, since age 18.
Tillamook, famous for its cheese, is like a Midwestern dairy town of 5,000 plopped down on the Pacific Coast. The surrounding county has 24,000 people and 26,000 cows. This demographic creates not only fine cheddar, but also a memorable aroma that folks here have dubbed the “Smell of Money.”
Still, there’s buzz in these parts about Knights who are farming not for cash, but for the poor.
“I guess we have been making an impression,” said Armstrong, surveying his fellow Knights as they worked the half-acre plot.
GARDEN OF GENEROSITY
The 40-by-100-foot plot that serves as the K of C garden is located along the Tillamook River, two miles from town and adjacent to Armstrong’s house. The parcel, which is owned by a Portland-area real estate agent, became so overgrown that Armstrong at first asked if he could mow it. Later, he inquired if he could farm it on behalf of the needy, a notion that came to him while praying. Armstrong’s fellow council members liked the idea, and so did the real estate agent.
“Not only is it amazing to have this fresh produce come in, but it comes at a time when food inventory is very low,” said Melissa Carlson-Swanson, who runs the Tillamook branch of the Oregon Food Bank, which supplies local pantries run by churches and other organizations. Food donations taper off after Christmas and don’t pick up again until Thanksgiving, added Carlson-Swanson. Fresh produce is always rare.
Jobs are also scarce in Tillamook County. The region has not recovered from the downturn in the wood products industry. Many residents work in low-paying tourist businesses like restaurants and hotels. Oregon Food Bank records show that many recipients hold down two or more jobs but still qualify for aid.
In addition to welcoming the produce, Carlson-Swanson appreciates getting to know the Knights, whom she calls “some pretty cool guys.” She finds their zeal and camaraderie inspiring.
“When we drive up, all we see are bright smiles and their excitement to show us what they brought in from the field,” she said. “They want us to hurry up and take it to the people so they can get their bins back and fill them again.”
The fresh produce gets used as fast as the Knights can grow it.
“Everything goes,” said Ellen Kujak, who runs a pantry at the Tillamook Christian Center. “People have been really receptive to it. I can see them bag up the produce and be really thankful. And I feel really good giving healthy food.” The pantry, one of two in the small town, feeds about 400 people per month. That’s down from 2008, when 700 people per month came, but is still much higher than before the recession.
Kujak, an evangelical Christian, says that men like the Knights bring ecumenism to life and draw the whole community together.
“I feel they are heroes,” added Suzanne Weber, mayor of Tillamook and a member of Sacred Heart Parish. “They are giving of their time and their effort and truly living the biblical sense of what Jesus was about helping your brother.”
CULTIVATING FERTILE GROUND
Like many people, the Knights write checks for charitable causes. But these Good Samaritans also help the needy by laboring for days in the hot sun. They crawl along rows, churning up the ground with hand tools. They fill bucket after bucket with potatoes. They walk through corn stalks, picking ripe ears. After the first frost, they will pluck squash off the vine.
“There are a lot of people who need the food,” said Bob Durrer, a retired dairy farmer and Knight of 54 years, as he pulled up a russet the size of a football. “You are doing something for other people. That is the main motivation.”
Hank Gollon, a powerfully built retired lumber mill maintenance worker, lugs a bucket of potatoes out of the field with little exertion. “This work is really rewarding,” he said. Gollon has been a Knight for more than 40 years. “I think if you are a Knight, it makes you a better Catholic.”
“I enjoy the work, and people need to have good produce, too,” said Bob Willhite, a former county public works supervisor. He brings his small tractor to the parcel to prepare the ground and carry the thousands of pounds of potatoes, cabbage and corn. “Part of it is letting people know the Knights are part of the community and that we want to help people,” Willhite said. “It makes you feel good. You accomplish something. You’re not just sitting around watching football.”
Hank Gollon digs up potatoes at the garden in early fall. Food grown by Council 2171 goes to local food pantries to help feed hundreds of people. (photo by Curtis Miller)
These gardening Knights have never hungered much but have worked hard their whole lives. Asked to explain their generosity, the men emphasize that this work is just what one does as a
Catholic and a Knight. Men of action, not theologians, they are reticent to expound upon their motivations.
Tom Weber, who is the mayor’s husband, a former fire chief and a Knight since 1993, spoke up as he scooped firm red potatoes from the ground.
“I can go from here sweating and knowing I was doing something for other people and for the Church.”
The project, he added, “means camaraderie, a sense of responsibility, a place to go.”
Like the produce itself, Weber has deep roots here. The field is located just across the Tillamook River from the farmhouse where his father grew up.
While the men do worry that the real estate agent may one day sell the parcel, they have already heard from parishioners who are willing to offer acreage so the project can continue.
As the Knights set their sights on another bumper crop next year, they are also preparing the ground for new recruits.
“We’re looking for some younger guys who don’t mind getting their hands dirty out here with us,” Weber said with a smile.
“Yep,” chimed in Durrer as he wiped sweat from his brow. “We could use some strong young backs.”
ED LANGLOIS is a staff writer at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore.