Granger Danger

A range of different varieties of cherry tomatoes at the local farmers market on Saturday. (Photo: Evan Leeson)A range of different varieties of cherry tomatoes at the local farmers market on Saturday. (Photo: Evan Leeson)

With three-quarters of Americans saying sustainability is a priority in purchasing food, and 66 percent of Americans in agreement that global warming is happening, some strains of environmental advocacy have graduated from niche causes to mainstream movements. In states like Oregon, where a back-to-the-land ethos often meets lefty politics, it isn’t unusual to come across cooperatively run grocery stores selling organic food delivered from a sustainable farm 20 miles away, and it’s likely that the owners of both work together on a GMO-labeling campaign (or at least use solar panels).

Many such folk are members of a fraternal organization called the “Grange,” an umbrella group of 2,100 local clubs of farmers overseen by a national organization (called the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry) with a full-time congressional lobbyist. Each of the 38 states with Grange chapters has a statewide executive committee, whose members are elected by local chapters. These “state granges” then communicate directly with the National Grange’s own executive committee, which ultimately guides the direction of the organization (not least through its full-time lobbyist in Congress).

Radical Farming

Some 140 years ago, the Grange was an incubator of fiery agrarian populism (at least among white farmers – more on that soon). Its founders took cues from organizations like the Elk Club, and some of its surviving chapters still hold on to Masonic traditions that one typically imagines in a secret Illuminati ritual. Writer Peter Wilson situates organizations like the Grange as part of a movement to fortify social bonds at a time when religion was losing relative influence and oligarchic capitalists were exerting greater control over people’s lives.

Between, say, 1840 and 1914, at a rough but reasonable guess, one out of every three Americans belonged to a fraternal organization – Masons, Oddfellows, Elks, Woodsmen, Rosicrucians, Good Templars, Druids, Daughters of Isis etc. – or at least to some cultural society such as the Athenaeum or Chautauqua. With hindsight we can speak of a society falling away from organized religions, but needing a secular substitute for the sociality or conviviality of the churches.

There has been some resistance from the National Grange to the new blood out West, even as the changes revitalize dwindling membership.

In the grab bag of Masonic clubs that all seem equally crusty now, the Grange was arguably the most radical. That doesn’t mean its history isn’t spotty. For years, the National Grange never intervened in Southern local chapters’ widespread discrimination against blacks joining, and today its membership remains mostly monochromatic. But their charter also enshrined socialist-inspired Rochdale Principles emphasizing voluntary membership, anti-discrimination (women were given equal voice in the Grange – a major anomaly at the time), democratic decision-making, common ownership, internal trading and a commitment to the collective good. These ideas weren’t outlandish to the early grangers; they were necessary for self-protection from runaway railroad monopolies extracting wealth from farmers at every possible juncture.

Grange chapters in the Midwest mounted the first serious challenge of legitimacy to the post-Civil War class of railroad barons. In states like Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, chapters pooled their savings to buy farming equipment for collective use and co-owned their own grain elevators and warehouses to undercut railroad companies’ price gouging via grain storage costs. The latter was accomplished by legislation that wrested grain elevators from the hands of monopolists by reclassifying them as utilities for the public good (the monopolists later wrested them back in court).

Following financial troubles related to overproduction, local Grange chapters faltered until the National Grange was revived in the early 20th century by men from the insurance industry. From then on, the National transformed into an organ of industrial farming, and local chapters that didn’t follow this change faded away. But in recent years, some newer grangers have looked to their roots to reimagine the organization as a force to resist Big Agriculture’s dominance over food.

Green Grange

Paul Gaylon, a member of the Live Oak Grange in Northern California, became involved in his local grange when the group’s membership was dwindling. He says many granges in his area have begun attracting younger members interested in food and land advocacy. These are people he says are “more aligned with the idea of being inclusive to the Grange, in terms of having it more active for a wider variety of community functions, more of an activist type of Grange.”

The National Grange is a staunch advocate of GMOs, which many newer grangers oppose.

A few hours north, there has been a similar reimagining of the organization as an advocate for localism over industrial farming. Calling themselves “green granges,” five clubs in rural Oregon have widened their membership to include not just farmers, but also avid gardeners and others interested in the sustainable food movement.

Today’s activist grangers get a little starry-eyed when they relay the Grange’s long history. “They were right from the start,” said Jay Sexton, the “master” of Marys River Grange in rural Oregon (a “Green Grange”). “They were 100 percent behind full and equal protection for women; they battled usury by corporations on farmers; they set up cooperatives.” Like many newer grangers, Sexton is not a farmer, but says he and his wife are gardeners and proponents of food co-ops and localism.

But newer members like Gaylon and Sexton say there has been some resistance from the National Grange to the new blood out West, even as the changes revitalize dwindling membership. For some, a series of lawsuits filed by the National Grange against the California State Grange is the manifestation of a rift in ideas between the old guard – which often finds itself on the side of industrial farming – and a newer membership that viscerally opposes corporate control of the soil. The Grange’s internal conflict is in many ways a microcosm of broader struggles for land and food in the 21st century, and its resolution may offer clues about the future of both.

Corporate Grange

In recent years, the National Grange has taken some positions that conflict with values that grangers like Sexton champion. Last year, when the Supreme Court sided with agrochemical conglomerate Monsanto in a lawsuit over intellectual property against a rural Indiana farmer, the National Grange vocally supported the decision. In the lawsuit, Monsanto alleged the farmer had bought some of the company’s genetically modified, self-replicating soybeans for one harvest and illegally replanted them during another. Monsanto stipulates that farmers must buy new seeds every year, which activists say has increased its control over food production.

The movement to label GMO foods in California grew out of a resolution crafted by a local granger, and the California State Grange became a major organizer and signature gatherer to put the “Right to Know” GMO-labeling initiative on the ballot.

“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,” said the National Grange’s legislative director, Grace Boatrigh, in a press release after the decision. What she meant in plain speak was that companies like Monsanto could lose incentive to create self-replicating soybeans if Monsanto couldn’t maximize profits by selling new seeds every year.

The National Grange is also a staunch advocate of GMOs, which many newer grangers oppose. “The Supreme Court’s decision . . . 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,” said National Grange president Ed Luttrell in the same press release. A few months later, at the National Grange’s annual meeting, the organization stated that it would only support strains of industrial hemp that were genetically modified. Marijuana, for now, is completely off the table.

“[W]e urge further research and application of existing biotechnology techniques to develop genetically modified industrial hemp that will be biologically incompatible with all other forms of cannabis or marijuana,” the organization said, adding that genetically modified hemp should “contain distinct chemical markers that will quickly and easily identify industrial hemp varieties,” so farmers can distinguish it from marijuana.

While these positions are ostensibly the sum of the votes by local grangers across the country, these positions have also made some newer grangers in California suspect that the national organization has put targets on their backs in recent years.

Old vs. New

The rift between the California State Grange and the National “has to do with power,” said Alan Hicks, a farmer in his 70s who sees the conflict as representative of the “schism” between corporate and people power in the United States. Hicks was involved in California’s localism movement before joining the Little Lake Grange in Willits, California, in 2005. At the time, Hicks says that Little Lake had less than 10 members, and he along with members of the Willits Economic Localization – which aims “to foster the creation of a local, sustainable economy in the Willits area” – decided to revitalize the town’s Grange.

“We believe that the real goal was to remove me from office . . . In California we have pretty progressive policies compared to National Grange.”

Hicks says the coup was part of a broader movement among California granges at the time. “There were other granges in California also trying to revitalize with a new fervor for localization, for sustainability, community resiliency, for fighting corporatocracy,” he said. “And we fought hard to help the community understand [the] meaning of peak oil, which was especially important for Little Lake Grange” (several fracking wells have been drilled near Willits).

In 2009, Hicks claims, he hatched a plan with other granges across the state to elect a new president of the California State Grange, Bob McFarland, another new-blood granger who shared a progressive vision.

Under McFarland, the California State Grange threw its weight behind causes the national entity nominally opposed. The movement to label GMO foods in California grew out of a resolution crafted by a local granger, and the California State Grange became a major organizer and signature gatherer to put the “Right to Know” GMO-labeling initiative on the ballot in November 2012. The measure did not pass, but the California State Grange and local chapters continue to organize GMO education campaigns. The California State Grange also works heavily with hemp activists across the state to push for farmers’ rights to grow the plant, organizing educational festivals and retaining a full-time lobbyist advocating for industrial hemp in the California legislature.

Given the California State Grange’s political activity, it struck many in the state as fishy when the National Grange decided to suspend McFarland from his position, setting off a row between the two organizations that ended in a full divorce last year. They allege that the conflict was ideologically motivated.

McFarland received the letter in the summer of 2012: The National Grange was notifying him that he had been suspended as the organization’s president. He was immediately suspicious.

“We believe in California that suspending me [from office] was conspiratorial in nature,” McFarland told Truthout over the phone. “We believe that the real goal was to remove me from office.” Asked why, McFarland pointed to politics.

“In California we have pretty progressive policies compared to National Grange,” he said. “I have never been able to prove that, but it’s very difficult to prove.”

Ed Luttrell, the National Grange’s president, flatly denied this.

“This issue has nothing to do with policies or personalities,” said Luttrell, with some exasperation. “It has to do with rules and structures of an organization. There is nothing to do with any other issue.”

Those rules in dispute had to do with the way McFarland had bungled a settlement negotiation related to the change of title of a particular grange before he was president. Sources aligned with the National Grange allege that McFarland transferred assets from that local chapter to an anonymous party for $3.5 million. The funds were distributed among California Grange chapters. The sources say there was nothing about the transaction that broke grange bylaws except that McFarland performed the transaction without notifying the national organization beforehand.

Food attitudes across the country are diverging from Big Agriculture’s in a major way, and this will continue to transform the Grange – if it survives the change.

After the deal, the California State Grange’s second-in-command, Martha Stefoni – whose late husband had been California State Grange president years before – filed a complaint against McFarland, resulting in the National’s two-month suspension letter (and Stefoni’s temporary appointment). When McFarland returned two months later, the National Grange suspended California’s charter and attempted to suspend him again for the remainder of his term, without any clear reason. McFarland refused to step down. The National then filed a lawsuit for the seizure of all of California’s assets, which a California court denied. California’s grange charter was eventually suspended in April 2013.

While those on both sides acknowledge that McFarland erred in the settlement negotiation, the resulting force with which the National Grange has tried to exert control over California State Grange because of a procedural error raises questions. Before 2013, the only other time a state’s charter was revoked was in 1921.

Further fueling suspicions of an ideologically based removal are the National Grange’s ties in Congress. Its chief legislative director and lobbyist, Burton Eller, rose to prominence during the Bush years, which was the most favorable time for behemoth agricultural corporations in history. While Eller made a name for himself through two long stints at the National Cattlemen’s Association – which donates heavily to the Republican Party – others also point to his ties to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In 2003, Eller was named director of the USDA’s Farming Service Agency by the third-highest ranking official in the USDA, J.B. Penn. Penn was previously the senior vice president and manager of Sparks Companies Inc., a grain processing and distribution company that donated a significant amount of funds in 2012 to the anti-GMO labeling campaign in California. Three years later, Eller was chosen by Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner to be deputy under-secretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA. In the late 1990s, Conner was the president of the Corn Refineries Association, which represents the ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup industries and the six massive agribusinesses that support them. After his tenure at the USDA, Conner publicly supported Monsanto’s 2010 effort to win the USDA’s approval for bioengineered alfalfa.

Of course, none of Eller’s associations prove there was a plot to remove McFarland from office. And National Grange president Luttrell insists that the conflict does not stem from the disagreement that exists in policy between many local granges and the national body.

“If I were to be upset because [local chapters] disagreed with national policy, I would have to be upset with all of the granges across the country,” Luttrell told Truthout. “I am absolutely sure if we go through the book you’d find we had disagreements with Massachusetts, in Texas, on a wide variety of issues.”

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In November 2013, the California State Grange submitted a letter to its superior office acknowledging that it had officially severed all ties to the National Grange, the first time any chapter has ever gone rogue. While the state grange’s bylaws explain that the organization is “independent of any national or other affiliation,” the charter is largely the same as the old one. There is now a legal battle over California’s use of the Grange name. An alternate “California State Grange” aligned with the National has also coalesced.

“There’s only one California State Grange, and I am the president,” Ed Komski, president of the newer, National-aligned California State Grange, told Truthout. It is the only “California” Grange that the national organization recognizes.

“Whatever Bob McFarland represents is what McFarland thinks it is,” Komski said. Any accusations of conspiracy, he added, just amount to fodder for “a living and breathing reality TV show.”

Beyond the mess in California, the National Grange is handling new grangers elsewhere with an accepting, if somewhat wary, regard. After dubbing themselves “Green Grangers” in Oregon, Jay Sexton says the farmers of his grange “got some push back” from the National, but he says things are more cordial now.

Still, food attitudes across the country are diverging from Big Agriculture’s in a major way, and this will continue to transform the Grange – if it survives the change. The demand for organic foods – which do not contain GMOs – more than doubled between 2002 and 2011, and organic retail sales totaled about $28.4 billion in 2012. The USDA estimates that total will be $35 billion this year – representing about 5 percent of total US food sales. Other changes also indicate a growing aversion to factory farming: The farm-to-table movement, for all its flaws, was a reaction to the centralization of agriculture by industrial farming. And the movement to reduce or eliminate meat consumption is coalescing into a global industry of veggie-friendly restaurants, cooking materials and dieting products.

But despite these trends, industrial farming is more entrenched than ever. About 2 percent of farm operations in the nation receive 50 percent of the nation’s net farm income. And with so many top agribusiness executives also serving in the government, the odds of change can seem insurmountable.

Nevertheless, stories like that of the California State Grange offer some proof of resistance. To keep its monopoly on our food in the face of a changing public tide, Big Agriculture will have to be meaner and more litigious than it already has been. The extent to which it succeeds will depend on how much pushback it receives from people organizing at the local level – some of whom, inevitably, will be grangers.