Nearly 150 years old, the Grange movement is just getting started.
The Sebastopol Grange sits on a neglected section of Highway 12 surrounded by not a whole lot. The Laguna de Santa Rosa, of course. An auction house. A consignment Western shop. A gas station. It’s just a building by the side of the road that barely registers when you whiz past on the way to and from West County.
At least, that’s how Lawrence Jaffe used to see it. Just a spot alongside the road that he drove by when commuting to and from his law practice. Until one day almost five years ago, when he noticed that the building had been tagged by graffiti and that not much had been done about it. On another commute, he saw an elderly man trying to fix the vandalism. But the paint was the wrong color and the ladder wasn’t tall enough. The guy could use a hand.
So Jaffe tried to get in touch with the Grange to offer some help. Having been a farmer himself for 10 years, he had sympathy for the effort. But he couldn’t raise a soul. It wasn’t until he reached out to the president of the California State Grange that he was able to get a contact for the local hall. He went to a few meetings. He got excited. And that’s the thing about Jaffe: when he gets excited, other people tend to, also.
What excited Jaffe perhaps most about the Grange is what it means not only to Sebastopol, but what the history of the grange means to America.
The Grange movement began just after the Civil War primarily as a way to help farmers who were being unfairly treated by the railroads. The brainchild of Oliver Hudson Kelley, who was sent by the newly created Department of Agriculture to survey farming conditions in the South after the war, the National Grange was established in 1867. By 1872, there were 1,000 of these fraternal organizations brimming with members throughout the U.S. Just as quickly as they rose, Granges dropped to just over 1,200 members by 1876. Today, California has 200 Granges with over 12,000 members. And, perhaps not surprisingly, that number is steadily once again on the rise.
Jaffe, the Sebastopol Grange’s current vice president, and Gary Abreim, its treasurer as well as treasurer for the California State Grange, recently demystified some of the charter’s history and intent.
“Ever since the Grange’s founding, it has emphasized civic participation and civic virtue,” Jaffe says. “And if these values had been dying ever since this country was founded, they would have been dead 100 years ago. There are always times when those values are important, and after the Great Recession hit, I really sensed that there was a huge upswing in people wanting to participate and wanting to understand that we must give back in the community, and we must come together to do that. Grange Halls have a structure, and they were gifted to us by the farmers of the past.”
Abreim adds, “One of the core values of the Grange from the beginning was family farmers. Farmers helping farmers, asking each other, ‘What are
you in need of?’ We are a membership organization that fosters participation. This is your venue, your workshop to grow projects and services for our community. You don’t see that in too many other places. That’s the core of the Grange.”
At just $33 a year, membership is cheap. There were some 100 people belonging to the Sebastopol hall when Jaffe joined; today, there are about 170 members, and they’re a much younger crowd, with the rapidly-growing Young Farmer’s Guild using the space for its monthly meetings. In the last four years, members have entirely revamped the hall, redoing everything from the paint to the toilets to make it a more pleasant place to visit. Because visiting is a huge part of Grange life.
“Granges were created to bring farmers together for socializing because it’s hard to get off the farm,” Jaffe says. “A woman could get married, go to the farm, and get stuck there forever. Socializing and educating—how do you get the best corn, the biggest pigs, what seeds are you using?—and learning about politics: coordinated purchasing, understanding what legislation is about.”
Jaffe and Abreim credit national Granges for successfully fighting for rural mail delivery and rural electrification, women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. Recently, they say, Granges supported the legalization of hemp and continue to fight against fracking and the planting of GMO crops, and for the implementation of rural broadband and rural road paving. Locally, an effort is underway to help emerging farmers get access to that most elusive, and expensive, resource: land.
“There is a tremendous amount of land in Sonoma County not devoted to grapes that can be used for agriculture,” Jaffe says. “We are working on a plan. It’s my understanding that the Open Space District is being encouraged to find a way to open up some of their land, appropriate parcels, to young farmers. We’re building these access pieces. By coming together and being visible, we’re pointing out that it’s important.”
Abreim envisions the Sebastopol Grange, with its wealth of land on and surrounding the property, as being a showcase for what’s possible in Sonoma County, including a demonstration permaculture garden and acres of local wheat, “So that when people drive by,” he says, “they really know what we’re up to.”
Come to think of it, the Sebastopol Grange doesn’t seem so much like just a building by the side of the road any more.
Meetings are the last Tuesday of every month.