New life at Sonoma County’s historic Granges
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.