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Estranged Grange

The California Grange revives against a backdrop of discord, secrecy and litigation

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The California state grange office declined to speak with me about this power shuffle, citing the lawsuit. But a letter on the California grange website calls national's actions "unpredictable law enforcement and arbitrary punishment."

"We never imagined that national grange policies and leadership, which were created to protect and support us, would be misused to punish popularly elected state grange leaders, support interests that harm small-scale local farming and sow discord within our membership," the letter says.

Some local grangers believe that the California grange's shifting political landscape is linked to the national rift.

"The national grange is quite analogous to the national Farm Bureau or the national Chamber of Commerce," Cotler says. "The levels below it in city and county organizations become more forward-looking, but as you get closer to national, you're more and more in the pocket of Big Ag."

Petaluma vice mayor and cofounder of the fledgling Petaluma Grange Tiffany Renee sees a similar divide. Having faced opposition from the local farm bureau for supporting GMO labeling, Renee says this divisive issue may be playing out on a larger level.

"National corporations could be concerned that a more pro-organic stance is taking hold in an established, respected organization like the grange," she says.

Luttrell says this is not the case, calling allusions to an ideological divide within the grange "assumptions."

"We support all aspects of agriculture," he says.

According to lobbying records on its website, the national grange has historically supported agricultural issues spanning the blue-red spectrum. But it has also joined forces with some of the agricultural giants that so fiercely opposed the GMO-labeling initiative supported by the California grange. In March of 2011, it lobbied in favor of HR 872, which sought to repeal what it termed "duplicated" regulation of pesticides and fungicides, alongside the Chemical Producers and Distributors Association and CropLife America. The latter is an arm of CropLife International, a group including Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, BASF and Bayer CropScience, all of whom contributed millions toward the "No on 37" campaign.

Luttrell told me in our interview that the national grange did not have a position on Proposition 37. However, a transcript of a speech he gave at the National Grange Convention on Nov. 13 reads: "Americans should oppose mandatory labeling of GMO products, as such labeling falsely implies differences where none exist."

The history of the grange reads like a study in opposing ideologies. Founded by Bostonian Oliver Kelly in Washington, D.C., to aid farmers in the Civil War–torn South, it was structured around freemasonry (an organization that didn't admit women) while electing female officers and participating in the suffrage movement. In the 1870s, it declared neutrality with the capitalist-owned railways while members covertly pushed for government regulation and were accused of communism. Throughout its 145-year existence, the grange has skillfully folded the many factions of rural America into itself, and—somehow—survived.

I'm reminded of this in Willits, as 11 hopeful members rise from the creaky pews surrounding the old grange hall and state their professions. They're grocers, bakers, acupuncturists, organic farmers, puppet-makers and one student with a part-time job. Half of them look like they're under 40. It's a strange sight, these Mendocino dwellers in worn-in jeans and clogs participating in a highly ritualized meeting that uses staves, sashes and an open Bible as props. But at this embattled moment in the agricultural world, that's exactly what the California grange is—a group of newcomers that don't quite seem to fit, hoping to be let in.

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