In 1867, a group of seven men sat around a wooden table in Washington, D.C., and agreed to form a national agricultural organization that brought isolated local farmers together to work for their common interests in chapters around the country. That organization was the National Grange, and it became the go-to organization for farmers of that era.
The Grange was way ahead of its time, representing farmers against the powerful railroad barons, advocating for women’s rights and supporting agricultural education. But as the number of small, local farmers decreased, so did Grange membership, and so did its political power.
While the organization still has 2,700 chapters nationwide and 206 in California, the Grange is now rich in buildings but poor in members. At one time, it had 30,000 to 40,000 California members, but now it is down to 10,000.
And the members are aging. Within a few decades, a large percentage of them may be farming in the afterlife. Without a new generation to take their places, the California Grange and its buildings will fade away.
But a small group of people interested in sustainable agriculture saw an opportunity. Would the oldest agricultural organization in the United States be willing to redefine itself by including community members who support sustainable agriculture?
Instead of fighting the railroads, today’s Grange could bring together all the people who support sustainable agriculture—small, family-run rural farmers; urban farmers; community-garden supporters; farmers’ market consumers; and even people who just like eating healthy food.
The sustainable agriculture advocates, led by the newly elected California Grange president Robert McFarland, found that the Grange membership was very open to this idea.
In California, the oldest agricultural organization in the state is now in the forefront of agricultural thinking.
When I met McFarland for lunch, he told me how he first became connected with the Grange when it supported his efforts to preserve his creek. According to McFarland, the 10,000 California Grange members were thrilled to support sustainable agriculture.
With 206 California chapters and 185 Grange buildings, McFarland believes that the Grange can be the focal point of a social movement. And at a cost of only $30 per year, Grange membership is open to nearly everyone. Here in the Sacramento region, we have Grange chapters in Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Rio Linda and Orangevale, to name just a few.
While this combination of sustainable-farming supporters and the Grange may seem like a wildly impossible idea, that’s what they said about the very creation of this organization way back in 1876.