Knights of Columbus photos by Corky Miller
Spud men: Bob Willhite, Hank Gollon, Don Armstrong, Bob Durrer and Paul Wostel.
Knights of Columbus photos by Corky Miller
Spud men: Bob Willhite, Hank Gollon, Don Armstrong, Bob Durrer and Paul Wostel.
TILLAMOOK— At 9 a.m., 86-year-old Don Armstrong is elbow deep in Oregon coastal loam, yanking out russet potatoes. By 5 p.m., 57-year-old widow Paula Taylor is leaving a church food bank, carrying 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 grown and donated this fall by members of Council 2171 in Tillamook.

"I love fresh food. It tastes real," says Taylor, who in the past worked on a farm and knows how hard it is. "I think what these men do is a beautiful thing."

This was the Tillamook Knight's third annual harvest. The charitable output keeps increasing, up from about 14,000 pounds last season. This year, the heaviest head of cabbage alone was a 24-pound whopper.

The project falls under the Knights' "Food for Families" initiative. The Supreme Council refunds $100 to local councils for every 500 pounds of food donated to local charities. It's an incentive created during the recession, when need increased substantially.   

"Things like this help people. It also keeps you moving," says Armstrong, who gets huffing when he labors, but is still slim. He 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 since age 18.  

Tillamook, famous for its cheese, is like a mid-western dairy town of 5,000 plopped down on the Pacific Coast. The surrounding county has 24,000 people and 26,000 cows. That demographic creates not only fine cheddar, but a memorable aroma. Folks here call it the "Smell of Money" or the "Dairy Air," a good pun for those who know a little French.  

There's buzz in these parts about the codgers who are farming not for cash, but for the poor.

"I guess we have been making an impression," says Armstrong.

A Portland realtor owns a 40-by-100-foot plot along the Tillamook River, two miles from town and adjacent to Armstrong's house. The parcel 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 he was praying. The other Knights liked the idea and so did the realtor.

Council 2171, based at Sacred Heart Church in Tillamook, counts 104 members. But it's a half dozen men creating the prolific flow of vegetables — of course with the help of local cow manure as fertilizer.  

"Not only is it amazing to have this fresh produce come in, but it comes at a time when food inventory is very low," says Melissa Carlson-Swanson, who runs the Tillamook branch of the Oregon Food Bank. She supplies pantries run by churches and other organizations. Statewide, food donations taper off after Christmas and don't pick up again until Thanksgiving. Fresh produce is always rare.  

Jobs are also scarce in Tillamook County. The region has not recovered from the fall of the wood products industry. Many residents work in lower-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.  

"I feel they are heroes," says 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."  

Like many people, the men write checks for charitable causes. But these septuagenarians and octogenarians also help the needy by laboring for days in the hot sun tending to their crops.  

"There are a lot of people who need the food," says Bob Durrer, a 72-year-old retired dairy farmer. "You are doing something for other people. That is the main motivation." Durrer, who still freelances as a bull trapper for local dairies, has been a Knight for 54 years.

These Knights have never hungered much and have worked unusually hard their whole lives. They are compassionate anyway. Asked to explain, they are nonplussed and act is if rampant generosity is just what one does as a Catholic and a Knight. Men of action, not theologians, they resist being forced to expound motivations.

Exception to the rule is 71-year-old Tom Weber. He's husband of the mayor, former fire chief and now a truck driver. A naturally eloquent man, he has been a Knight since 1993.

"I can go from here sweating and knowing I was doing something for other people and for the church," says Tom, donning waterproof overalls as he scoops up firm red potatoes. "Doing this can feel like going to church." For him, the produce project exemplifies what it means to be a Knight.

"It means camaraderie, a sense of responsibility, a place to go," he explains. "The Knights are about helping people."

It's not just the plants that have deep roots here. The field is just across the Tillamook River from the farmhouse where Tom Weber's father grew up.

The Knights fear the realtor may sell the parcel. But they have already heard from parishioners willing to offer acreage so the project can continue. The other question is the durability of the volunteer farmers.

"People do get old and tired," Tom says.

"Yep," chimes in Durrer as he wipes sweat from his brow. "We could use some younger men."