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Published September 17, 2009, 09:03 PM

N.W. Minnesota native to give away 90,000-plus pounds of fresh produce

Don Armstrong and his wife, Vera, will begin the giant charity giveaway of potatoes, pumpkins, squash, cabbage and more at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Pennington County Fairgrounds in Thief River Falls.

By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald

A Thief River Falls native who is a potato broker in Michigan will give away more than 90,000 pounds of fresh produce Saturday in his hometown.

Don Armstrong and his wife, Vera, will begin the giant charity giveaway at 11 a.m. at the Pennington County Fairgrounds.

“People always ask why I’m doing this,” he said. “I tell them that God and Jesus were having coffee one morning and they said, ‘Don, we want you to give away some produce.’ So, I’m doing it.”

Here is the approximate list of products available:

- 43,000 pounds of potatoes.

- 20,000 pounds of pumpkins.

- 17,000 pounds of squash.

- 12,000 pounds of cabbage.

- 1,000 colossal onions, each weighing 1 to 2 pounds or more.

- 2,500 cans of vegetables and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.

The potatoes will be available in 20-pound bags.

Armstrong said he hopes to supply nonprofit food cupboards and other charitable organizations, as well as individuals.

“It’s open to anybody in the community that would like to come out,” he said.

Armstrong said he has been spreading the word in Thief River Falls through churches and nonprofits, as well as through the media. He has a goal of 500 vehicles.

The plan Saturday is to have people go through a lane with their trunks open. Volunteers will put the food, including 20-pound bags of potatoes, into their trunks.

Armstrong, the 70-year-old president of Armstrong Potatoes LLC, has been in the produce business for 49 years.

“The business has been good to me,” he said.

This isn’t Armstrong’s first produce giveaway. In September 2008, he partnered with a nonprofit organization to give away 75,000 pounds of potatoes in Grand Harbor, Mich.

He plans to do it there again in October.

This is his first giveaway in Minnesota.

“I’m from Minnesota,” Armstrong said. “I was raised in Euclid, moved to Thief River Falls in 1951 and grew up there. I like Minnesota tremendously.”

His sister and brother-in-law, Janice and Duane Olson, live on the family farm along Minnesota Highway 1, west of Thief River Falls.

After serving in the U.S. Army, he moved to East Grand Forks in 1960 to study to become a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector. He worked for the USDA for about a decade in Ohio, New York and Illinois. He later was a buyer for Kroger Foods, spending about four years in Greenville, Mich., before going into the produce business for himself in 1974.

He deals mainly with Michigan-grown potatoes, selling to process companies such as Campbell Soup Co., potatoes to Kroger for potato salad, cabbage for coleslaw and potatoes for repack sales.

He said that while Michigan potatoes compete well in the potato chip and processing industry, they don‘t stack up next to Red River Valley Reds.

“Valley potatoes are better, a higher grade, better standard,” he said. “Michigan has gained over the years. In chip potatoes, they’re probably equal or better, but the Red River Valley’s red potatoes for the table are the best.”

As for this weekend’s events, he said people should plan to be there early.

“I want to hear three words — it’s all gone,” he said.

He figures that won’t take too long.

At his first giveaway — 75,000 pounds of produce — last year in Michigan, it was gone in about 30 minutes.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com.

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