Lots of passionate people are taking up farming these days, motivated by frustration with industrial farming, concerns about the environment, and a desire to build community and local food markets. Some of these new farmers have joined the Grange, a long-established fraternal organization for farmers with roots in social activism.
In Oregon, Granges dominated by this new generation have banded together in a coalition dubbed "Green Granges," which work together to advance the issues they care about.
You would think that would be good news for the Grange, a group whose membership peaked in the 1870s at 2 million and has been struggling to draw new blood in recent years. But these "Green Grangers" are creating an identity crisis for the organization, which has long been made up of older, more conservative farmers.
The changes being wrought are evident about 90 miles south of Portland, Ore., at the Marys River Grange — one of approximately 2,100 local Granges across the country, and one of five Green Granges. The Marys River chapter was established in 1933 (the street outside is called "Grange Hall Road") but it nearly shut down in 2009. Like many Granges across the U.S., its membership was dying off.
"It had been voted by the few remaining older members to close this Grange," says Jay Sexton, who now holds the post of "lecturer" at the Marys River Grange. Then word spread and new people showed up — with new ideas.
Sexton was among those new people. He says he was "thinking about having the Grange be an advocate for local farms; healthy, clean food; contact between producers and consumers in farmers markets."
At the May meeting and potluck, a young farmer talked about his experience raising hogs humanely and naturally. And as members loaded up their plates with food, members exchanged gardening tips.
In some ways, Green Granges like Marys River harken back to the organization's past. Over its 146-year history, the Grange has had a big role in several social movements. It successfully lobbied to regulate monopolies and supported women's suffrage. It was a major backer for rural electrification, and it still pushes Congress to improve rural infrastructure
That's fine, says national president Luttrell, but he adds that the Grange has a history of supporting all forms of agriculture — including industrial farms.
"We do have some of our Green Granges that want to be exclusive, not inclusive," he says. "And in those cases, I really feel strongly that those members need to understand our history and understand where we came from."
In California, something similar to the Green Grange movement is happening. The most visible sign was the state Grange's support for Proposition 37, which would have required labels for genetically engineered food.
At a rally last summer, California State Grange Master Bob McFarland told a crowd, "The consumers of California have a right to know what they put in their bodies, where it comes from and how it is produced."
California voters rejected the measure, but this advocacy caused friction with the National Grange. A legal battle has since flared up, with national leaders accusing the California leaders of going their own way and violating Grange rules. In April, the National Grange stripped the California State Grange of its charter. Now the dispute likely will be decided in court.
"Sometimes, you can't choose who your new members are," says Hank Keogh, who holds the post of "overseer" at Marys River Grange. "You got to have new people, and sometimes, those new people are going to have new priorities."
But some Grange members worry about this split between new and existing members.
"I have an issue with the label 'Green' Grange," says Krist Novoselic, master at the Grange in Grays River, Wash. Novoselic co-founded the grunge rock band Nirvana and likes to joke, "I went from grunge to grange."
Novoselic hopes the Grange can work through this controversy and remain an organization for all kinds of people. "Our grange is a grange," he says. "It's not a Green Grange; it's not a liberal grange; it's not a conservative grange. It's just a grange."
The Grange has a tradition of referring to itself as a family, and some hope that will help the organization pull through this turmoil. "We call each other brothers and sister," says Oregon State Grange Master Susan Noah. "As a brother and sister you may fight, you may argue. ... But at the end of the day, you still remain friends and family."
But first, this "family" will have to work out its differences and decide what direction the Grange is headed.
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An American institution is going through a difficult time. The Grange is a fraternal organization started after the Civil War for rural families, mostly farmers. These days, its membership has been declining and Grange halls have been closing. But a new generation of farmers has started joining, a generation interested in organic agriculture and environmental issues. As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, their politics and activism are causing some friction.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The Grange has been around for nearly 150 years and it played a significant role in some big issues, like successfully lobbying to regulate monopolies. It supported women suffrage and it still pushes congress to improve rural infrastructure. For many, the local Grange hall was the place to be when they were growing up.
ED LUTTRELL: If you wanted to go to a dance, you went to the Grange hall.
BRADY: Ed Luttrell is the national president of the Grange.
LUTTRELL: There wasn't dancing anywhere else in town. So if you wanted to go where the pretty girls were or the handsome young men, you went down to the Grange and you participated.
BRADY: In the 1870s, Grange membership was estimated at as high as 2 million. Today, it's less than a tenth of that. Still, there are more than 2,000 Grange halls left, and many of them still host monthly potluck dinners. We're at the Mary's River Grange, almost 100 miles south of Portland, Oregon. A few people are setting the table. Across the hall there's a stage. Above, huge timber beams, and underfoot, a newly refinished wood floor. Jay Sexton holds the post of lecturer here and says in 2009 this local institution almost shut down.
JAY SEXTON: It had been voted by the few remaining older members to close this Grange.
BRADY: But words spread. New people showed up and many of them came with new ideas.
SEXTON: Thinking about having the Grange be an advocate for local farms, healthy clean food, contact between producers and consumers in farmer's markets.
BRADY: Now, this Grange invites young farmers to talk about things such as raising hogs humanely and naturally. And as members load up plates of food, they exchange tips about organic gardening.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What about letting strawberries produce the first season they're in the ground? Is that a good idea?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think it's okay.
BRADY: What happened at Marys River Grange is also happening in other communities. A few granges in Oregon have joined a loose coalition dubbed Green Granges. They work together to advance the goals some of these new grange members feel passionately about. That's fine, says national president Luttrell, but the Grange has a history of supporting all forms of agriculture, including industrial farms.
LUTTRELL: We do have some of our Green Granges that want to be exclusive, not inclusive. Basically, it's my way or the highway. And in those cases, I really feel strongly that those members need to understand our history and understand where we came from.
BRADY: In California, something similar to the Green Grange movement is happening. State Grange master Bob McFarland spoke at a rally last summer supporting a measure to label food with genetically modified ingredients.
BOB MCFARLAND: The consumers of California have a right to know what they put in their bodies, where it comes from and how it is produced.
BRADY: Voters rejected the measure but this advocacy caused friction with the national Grange. A legal battle has since flared up, with national leaders accusing the California Grange of going its own way and violating Grange rules. In April, California was stripped of its charter. Gus Frederick(ph) is with the Green Granges in Oregon and says he understands why older Grange members are upset by this new generation.
GUS FREDERICK: Change is scary, you know, and they see, you know, what they may identify as "hippies" - quote/unquote - coming in and, all of a sudden, becoming involved in something that traditionally they hadn't been involved before. They may - oh, my god, we're being taken over.
BRADY: But Frederick says that's not the case. Many of the new grangers are inspired by the founding principles of the Grange. They enjoy repeating the stories of Grangers in history standing up to railroad monopolies. That history is one of the things that attracted probably the most famous Grange member today. Krist Novoselic co-founded the grunge rock band, Nirvana.
KRIST NOVOSELIC: So I went from grunge to Grange.
BRADY: Novoselic is the master at his local grange in Southwest Washington State.
NOVOSELIC: I have an issue with the label Green Grange, because we should just all be grangers. Okay? Our grange is a grange. It's not a Green Grange. It's not a liberal grange. It's not a conservative grange. It's just a grange.
BRADY: Grange leaders are frustrated with this internal conflict. They'd rather focus on attracting new members. Susan Noah is master of the Oregon State Grange.
SUSAN NOAH: In the Grange, we refer to ourselves as family. We call each other brothers and sisters. And so, as a brother and sister you may fight, you may argue. But at the end of the day, you still remain friends and family.
BRADY: But first, this family will have to work out its differences and decide what direction the Grange is headed. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.