Being a member of the oldest, continuously operating local Grange in the country can be a burden.
Last June, when a rainstorm swept through Santa Rosa during the Bennett Valley Grange's annual barbecue, the farm organization faced a conundrum. Could they break a 138-year tradition?
"We've never missed a year ... We've never canceled before," said Granger Karen Sommer. "So they put this tractor out and a big tarp over the barbecue and everything was held inside."
The National Grange organization was launched in the U.S. after the Civil War, when Oliver Hudson Kelley surveyed the rundown farms of the South and came back to Washington, D.C. proposing a "fraternity" for farmers. In 1867, the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was founded as a grass-roots coalition to help farm families network, fight railroad monopolies and advocate for common interests like low-cost loans, water and other resources.
Membership rose for decades, then dwindled. But now — with the rise of interest in healthy food and all things locavore, sustainable, organic and farmers market — there's a resurgence of interest in the farm organizations.
(The word "grange" comes from a Latin word for grain. In England, farms became known as granges, and a farmer was called a husbandman.)
"The Grange became a place where the farmer would meet to compare crops and prices, share new technologies and and find out the big picture," said Granger Joe Judge, who grows grapes across the road from the Bennett Valley Grange. "Unless you got off your farm on a horse, you didn't know what was going on."
The Grange, a hierarchy with national, state, county and local divisions, has accepted women as equal members since its inception. Youngsters can join at age 14.
Long-time Granger Patty Allen grew up on a dairy farm and cattle ranch in Bennett Valley. After she married her husband, Bill, she remained active in Bennett Valley Grange No. 16.
"We have 130 members still, not all active, but they do support us," Allen said. "We have two or three community dinners a year, as fund-raisers."
Members pay dues of $35 per year, up from $3 a year back in 1873. National membership has ebbed during the past 75 years, with the demise of the family farm.
"There were 4,000 Granges at one time, and now it's hard to get members, because society has changed," said Jocelyn Thompson, treasurer of the Bennett Valley Grange. "Back then, there was no television, and it was a long road to town."
Recently, however, the pendulum has started to swing back. Statewide, the grange movement is enjoying a resurgence, with increased attendance and new Granges forming in the past year.
"It's starting to go in the direction of organic farming," Allen said. "There's a new Petaluma Grange that meets at the Seed Bank, and there's one in Marin that just started."
In Sebastopol, a group known as Transition Sebastopol has joined with the Sebastopol Grange in an effort to cultivate community resilience in the face of threats such as climate change.
"They believe in people taking care of themselves and eating local," Allen said. "They've found a home with the Grange."
When the Bennett Valley Grange Hall was built back in 1873, local farmers were raising mostly grain and feed crops in the rich, volcanic soils.