I drove up Highway One Monday afternoon to the old Fort Bragg Grange building in Inglenook to meet the local resistance. The Grangers, officially The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, were in emergency conference to talk strategy in the building they had taken back basically by force. They did not let me stay for the meeting but they gave me the basics of their side of the story and they sure have engaged my interest.
The Grange is about as hard core American an institution as you can find anywhere. Born out of an agrarian resistance to railroad monopolies and land grabbing banks in the post-Civil War South, the Grange movement spread like prairie wildfire through the farming and ranching communities of the country, exploding from five to eight thousand chapters in its first five years. The Grange is America’s original grass roots movement.
It started life as lobby for farmers, a forum for the community, a resource for sharing farming technology and became the first organized national resistance to the corporate expansion and consolidation of the Gilded Age.
The populists and the progressives trace their origins to it. We should recall organized opposition to an unfettered capitalist free for all began first with farmers. The Grange movement was farm families organized around common sense, respect for women, modern farming and to act as a unified political voice.
From the start they were considered radicals by the banker Republicans and railroad tycoons. Worse, they were an effective opposition to the monopolists. In their long history they pushed for and got the Cooperative Extension Service, Rural Free Delivery and the Farm Credit System. They made the small farmer heard in the halls of power.
In thirty-six states and thousands of small communities the Grangers built solid wooden meeting halls as a physical symbol and practical realization of community. Most communities in Mendocino County had its Grange Hall.
By the turn of the century, the American political dialogue had become complex and increasingly focused on urban issues. The radical ideology of small farmers was muted in a national dialogue that went far beyond the farm, but the Grange did not disappear. The old halls still stood in thousands of towns, often unpainted and mostly unused but the core idea that they represented lived on.
In the early years of the century, insurance entrepreneurs saw opportunity in the national scale of the Grange and appropriated the legal organization and the name as a vehicle for their own ambitions.
The insurance hustlers came and went, but the meeting halls themselves were built to last. To this day in over 2000 communities in 36 states the Grange halls are still standing as monuments to our grandfathers’ intelligence and spirit.
The ideals of the Grange had grown like seeds in the common dirt of a precious shared experience of independent farming. Their values were founded in common sense, rooted in the life and culture of the independent farm. For Grange families there was a proud disdain to be anything less than free and independent on your own land. The new mega-culture of factories and commercialism and cars and advertising might laugh at it, and they did, but they could not entirely kill the Grange idea.
Over the 20th century the country changed beyond all recognition. The Grangers seemed to recede to a historical footnote. But in 2012, in what must have been an unimaginably distant future to our farmer ancestors, local Granges started acting up.
In California organized opposition to genetically modified crops came first from a Granger. Bob McFarland was elected state Grange president in 2009. As state president he organized a ballot initiative, Proposition 37 which, had it passed in 2012 would have mandated the labeling of GMOs in California. That got the Grange noticed. California is the world’s seventh largest economy. To the educed but historically proud and naturally oppositional small town Granges, local, self-produced organic food was second nature.
By all accounts, Bob McFarland tapped a strong sentiment of local activism across rural California. Independent farmers, gardeners and just folks seeking the voice of affiliation and the comfort of community found relevance in the values that were always at the heart of the original movement. Like a ghost recalled from the dead the Grange once again was a living idea.
In faraway Washington DC the Grange’s central administration reacted. They amended the bylaws in 2011 to allow them to revoke a state charter. The noble Bob McFarland was suspended and then fired in 2012. When the California executive committee demurred, the national organization revoked the California charter and amended the bylaws again to give the central national authority greater authority over local Grange property. Then they sued the Grangers for calling themselves a Grange.
In 2014 the National Grange let the cat out of the bag and went to bat openly for Monsanto. In an amicus brief for the Supreme Court the Grange backed Monsanto with all that they had.
National Grange Legislative Director Grace Boatright put it to the local membership with cold brutality. “If the Supreme Court didn’t rule in favor of Monsanto’s argument there would be little incentive to produce and promote inventions if a company or individual lost all profit-making potential after the first sale of a self-replicating product.”
National Grange President Ed Luttrell told the Grangers with a straightface that the Grange was backing the megacorporation that “assures an abundant food supply into the future.”
Said Ed, “The Supreme Court’s decision is not only good for agriculture and Ag business, but it reaffirms the fact that genetically modified products are not only safe but also necessary if we intend to produce enough food to meet future needs; the Grange is a supporter of GMO products.”
The Grange that many thought represented them were bluntly told that the Grange was “a supporter of the individual farmer’s right to use this (gmo) technology when available until credible scientific evidence suggests that a real danger exists”
For many of us in Mendocino County, not only small farmers but organic food consumers and folks generally, the informed perception is that the Monsanto corporation has declared war on nature itself. In our small, green county we understand all too well that vast ecological damage, brutish political usurpation of intrinsic legal rights and behind the scenes political scheming that define Monsanto and their assault on the earth. Bob McFarland’s Proposition 37 would have made them put labels on the roughly 80% of food products sold in California that contain GMOs.
There was fierce local disagreement with the National Grange position. So far there have been seventeen lawsuits filed against National Grange. The National Grange brought in Ed Komski as state Grange President to work the situation. He changed locks on Guild halls, made threats and hustled into the courts for control of local assets.
The locals fought back.
In the end the Grangers lost their name but they kept their buildings. Shamefully, they now have to call themselves a Guild. But at Inglenook, right here north of Fort Bragg, and elsewhere they busted the locks and took out the security cameras.
The day was windy and bright when I turned my car around, I had the feeling that the folks formerly known as the Grange were not too certain what the next move might be. They were talking strategy and trying to figure it out. They were doing the same thing in Granges across the country. Betrayed by a national organization that played the shill for the worst agricultural policy since the stone age, and under assault from a predatory, small time hustler with his hands now on the helm of the state organization, the local membership had nowhere to turn but to each other. The Grange 672 had come back to where it all started.