grange poster

By Shepherd Bliss

Founded some 150 years ago, the Grange is the oldest farm organization in the United States. The name Grange comes from old English farm-estates, which together make a community, and are called Granges. We could use more community in our fast-moving, hi tech society.

The Grange was started by ranchers and farmers protesting railroad monopolies, when many people farmed. Now less than 2% of Americans farm. Most Grange members no longer farm. Membership is open to all who agree with our principles. Nearly 10,000 people are members in nearly 200 California Granges.

I was raised partly on an Iowa farm in the middle of the 20th century. We had a windmill, out house, gas lanterns, cellar full of preserves, wood stove, and ice box.

No electricity, so no TV. Rural electrification didn’t arrive to the Mid-West until the late 40’s. So we had stories every night, on the couch, which usually began, “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago…”

We also had a nearby Grange Hall, where farm families gathered. We kids swung from the rafters there. I associate the Grange with family. The Grange is a family. As California Grange President Bob McFarland says, “We need to be there for each other.”

I remember farm mothers breast-feeding their children at the Grange Hall and men peeing outside, which I still do. Why waste nitrogen-rich fertilizer that could go into compost piles.

We saluted the American flag and sang patriotic songs. I felt part of a caring community, which is what I feel once again at the Sebastopol and Hessel Granges. The Grange both respects tradition and responds productively to rapidly changing conditions here in the 21st century.

In my 40’s I had a mid-life quest. I asked, “When was I happiest?”  While working on our family farm in Iowa. So I left full-time college teaching and bought a small farm in the Sebastopol countryside, where I have lived for most of the last 20 years. I named it Kokopelli Farm, after the humpbacked flute player, a wounded healer and deity of peace.

A couple of years ago I started hearing about the Grange again—still alive and kicking, in fact growing here in California, after a period of decline. I heard that a Grange Revival was happening, so I went to a meeting. They did some old-fashioned things that I had not done in decades. I came to respect this traditional group, which is like a Big Tent of independent people who do not try to agree on everything. Our Sebastopol Grange is, well, Sebastopol. Other Granges are also local. They each differ.

We do have a guiding declaration of purposes, which states that the Grange “is not a partisan or party organization.” We do, however, get involved in political issues, like lobbying for GMO labeling.

The Sebastopol Grange has an open gathering on the last Tuesday of every month. It unfolds in the following ways:
5:15—Farmers and those interested in farming come to exchange food and farm talk.
6:30—Potluck. Yum! Yum!
7:30—Presentation, which can include music, poetry, a talk, some discussion.
8 p.m. or so—the meeting itself. People can come and go as they need to.

I also go to the Hessel Grange’s grower’s exchange, which is every Wednesday afternoon from 4:30 to 6:30 into October. That Grange also offers yoga classes Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

The Petaluma Grange meets in the Seed Bank. Its newsletter has the sub-title “Taking back control of our food, While building community.” That sums up the essence of the California Grange.

Granges pays our bills partly by renting out our halls. The Sebastopol Grange Hall is rented many nights of the week.

This fall the Grange will be involved in two events. The National Heirloom Festival will occur Sept. 10-12 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.  20,000 people are expected. We will have booth there.

Among the many exciting speakers will be Deborah Koons Garcia, who made the films “The Future of Food” and “Symphony of the Soil,” which we will also be showing at the Sebastopol Grange. Granger Andy Sarhanis will also speak. The cost is only $10 a day or $25 for three days.

The Sebastopol Grange will host the California Grange’s State Convention October 913. We expect some 200 people from 75 to 80 Granges. Its theme is “Rooted in History, Seeding the Future.” We’ll have workshops, speakers, music and other entertainment, vote on resolutions on issues such as GMO labeling, and elect officers. We will have do fun things, such as hula dancing. You’re invited.

Michael Dimock of Roots of Change, a key speaker at the coming convention, was at a recent planning meeting. He affirmed the original principles of the Grange, which include self-reliance and community resilience. He plans to talk about the “cheap food” problem. He asserted that problems around the environment have developed in recent years, which agriculture must address, such as climate change.

 Dimock will be talking about the need for a new social contract between agriculture and the American people. We need rural economic vitality.

The values of the Grange include taking control of our food. Local examples would be the Grangers who set up Spiral Food Coop and the new Locastore at the corner of Hiway 116 and Bloomfield. We need healthy food.

“The brokenness of community lies at the heart of our current problems,” said Sebastopol  Grange President Jerry Allen at the meeting. He plays the accordion and leads barn dances, which help build community.

(Shepherd Bliss farms, teaches college part-time, and can be reached at [email protected])

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