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A surge of interest in natural foods, local sourcing and environmental sustainability is bringing new life to the Civil War-era Grange movement, driving participation and restoring its relevance among modern folks yearning for connection to one another and to the food they consume.

The Sebastopol Grange — part of the nationwide farmers alliance that spans 147 years of agricultural development, economic expansion and vast social change — is among the groups that are thriving, its membership surpassing 200 people just a few years after its existence was threatened.

“It’s a process of revitalizing community,” President Jerry Allen said. “It’s going on all over, and it’s sure going on here.”

Granges in Sonoma Valley, Bennett Valley, Petaluma, Windsor, Bodega Bay and Hessel also are gathering strength, building community and blending a long-held commitment to the land with more contemporary views about how best to sustain it in a changing world.

California Grange President Bob McFarland calls it a “renaissance,” one that since 2009 has greatly reinforced the ranks of the state organization, which currently claims 10,000 members. The infusion of newcomers — some of whom are farmers, many of whom are not — has reduced the average age of state members from 65 to 45 in just five years, he said.

California Grangers have started or restarted 42 community Granges, Hessel and Petaluma among them, providing forums for education and discussion of progressive issues such as climate change, organic farming, genetically modified organisms, industrial hemp and fermentation.

“Our grange halls are once again alive,” McFarland said. “They’re once again full of the community. And it’s not all about food and agriculture.

“It’s about public banking. It’s about fuel and energy sources … anti-fracking and protecting the planet as stewards of the land.”

The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was founded in 1867, inspired in part by the pathetic state of the rural South in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is a nonpartisan, fraternal organization created to advance agriculture and foster the social and economic health of farmers and rural communities. Women have had an equal voice since the start.

The shift away from small family farms contributed to attrition in membership around the country and left most grange halls in the hands of aging members.

That is changing, especially in California.

Modern-day Grangers, said attorney Lawrence Jaffe, past president in Sebastopol, “are trying to rebuild all the Grange ideals: local food, resilient local communities and getting together without the aid of TV and movies.”

Traditional events, and more

Traditional pancake breakfasts and spaghetti feeds still have a place, but they are joined by composting and biochar demonstrations, campouts and film screenings, community emergency response team trainings and “reskilling” workshops to teach sustainable, daily living activities like produce canning. Membership dues typically are $35 a year.

With a high ratio of farmers among its 35 members, the rechartered Petaluma Grange works to balance the needs of those “interested in preserving our local food economy and who love to eat good local food, with our farm members, who are struggling to maintain their family farms and keep going,” President Tiffany Renee said.

Rural Sebastopol resident Beth Lewis, who initiated the effort to restart the Hessel Grange in 2008, said she was eager to create a community gathering place and cultivate a social network that would bring neighbors together in calm and in crisis. The 90-member group hosts yoga classes, dog training, growers exchanges and general-interest lectures.

The Sonoma Valley Grange serves, in part, as a community center for Boyes Hot Springs, with a focus on sustainable food production and community service. It hosts a weekly cafe staffed by local faith communities that provides hot meals to those in need. The Grange is trying to raise $250,000 to renovate its kitchen, with an eye toward improving the hall’s appeal for event rentals and its usefulness as a relief center, as well as providing a place for local food businesses and farmers to prepare food for sale.

“Every Grange is quite autonomous,” said Michael Acker, outgoing president of the Sonoma Valley Grange, “but I know all of us are working toward the same goal, which is to revitalize our organizations and make them community-based service organizations in every way we can.”

The Sebastopol Grange owes much of its growth to Jaffe, who in 2011 stopped by its modest building off Highway 12 to inquire about some graffiti that had appeared on an exterior wall. He learned that the Grange, built by local dairy farmers in 1948, was in dire straits with just a handful of members remaining, and he decided to do something about it.

“I did that classic TV commercial thing,” Jaffe said. “I brought two friends, and they brought two friends, and it took about a year to get a really strong Grange.”

Partnerships forged

The Sebastopol Grange also has helped launch partnerships between community Granges and Northern California chapters of the Farmers Guild, founded by Sebastopol farmer Evan Wiig.

Wiig, 28, said he already had organized about 70 young farmers and ranchers from the area who were meeting for regular but informal get-togethers when he learned about the existence of the Grange. What he discovered, he said, was “a wonderful group of people” with aligned values and goals.

“What I didn’t find,” he said, “was farmers.”

But through partnering with the Sebastopol Grange and its members, the Farmers Guild has developed a mutually beneficial relationship that has since been replicated in seven other Northern California communities that include Sonoma Valley, Willits and the Mendocino Coast.

“It’s been a really amazing partnership,” Wiig said, “and it allows for the Grange to continue serving a broad base.”

Sonoma County and its neighbors are fertile ground for the Grange’s historic focus on agricultural health, vibrant rural communities, political and social advocacy, egalitarian principles and community strength. State officials say the county’s 11 active halls have somewhere between 600 and 750 members.

The county’s agricultural roots, burgeoning vineyards and early adoption of organic production, slow food and community-supported farms make for a rich supply of people who are especially interested in the land and all it has to offer.

Not everyone welcomes the shift away from conventional ideas, but people with that view are more prevalent outside of California and the North Coast, most members said.

Windsor Grange Vice President Josephine Rebich, 85, said the new thrust is “exciting.” For those who don’t see it that way, “that’s too bad,” she said. “I hope the Grange doesn’t die away.”

Santa Rosa resident, Patty Allen, 65, a member of the Bennett Valley Grange since she was 14, said she has noticed some resistance among Northern California members. But, like Rebich, Allen said she finds the Grange’s modernized emphasis “interesting, and if it helps preserve the Grange and the halls, that’s great.”

Longtime Grange stronghold

The county has long been a Grange stronghold, as well, boasting the nation’s longest continuously operating Grange hall in Bennett Valley, founded in 1873 amid gracefully arching live oak trees and, nowadays, vineyards. The door to the main meeting room still has a peephole covered with a small sliding door so incoming Grangers of an earlier era could offer the secret password in exchange for admittance.

Bennett Valley’s senior member, 109-year-old Ann Beech Burow, has been enrolled in the organization longer than anyone else in the country, joining 89 years ago as the newlywed wife of a dairyman, an Oakland transplant still growing accustomed to life without electricity or paved roads.

Many of today’s Grangers have all the modern-day convenience they can use and are looking instead for more of a hands-on, back-to-basics relationship with food, land and community.

“There’s a real sense of taking care of each other,” said teacher and home gardener Karen Perry, 52, of the Sebastopol Grange. “I mean, the precepts of the Grange are kindness, generosity, community building.”

Another Sebastopol Granger, Jaime Hogen, 38, said she loves that the Grange brings all ages together.

“I’m so happy to be here and be a part of it,” said Hogen, mother of 7-year-old twins. “Just to have a multigenerational potluck once a month, with a grace every time, in a circle, is so special.”

Clash with national group

All is not perfect: In the midst of this expansion, the California Grange has fallen out with national officials who last year stripped the state organization of its charter and filed suit, alleging copyright infringement over the state body’s continued use of the word “grange” amid pending litigation over adherence to by-laws and a host of other issues.

Some believe the conflict was fueled by the California Grange’s generally liberal views, including its vociferous support of a failed 2012 ballot measure that would have required labeling of genetically engineered food.

As a result, there was a mass departure from the state organization, said California Grange President McFarland, though a greater number of newcomers has offset the loss for a net increase of 1,500 members.

He said he hopes to resolve the litigation and restore relations with the National Grange, though it already has chartered a new California State Grange with which at least 10 community granges have affiliated.

There’s a tendency for adherents of tradition “to hang on … until their knuckles turn white,” McFarland said, but “we have opened up our doors in California. We have to welcome the community, or we’re going to die.

“And if the community’s needs have changed, then we have to change with the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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