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New Life at Sonoma County’s Historic Granges
by Mary Callahan for The Press Democrat


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.

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