When Lanny Cotler joined the Little Lake Grange in Willits, five people attended the meeting.
"It was a dying institution," he recalls.
When I attend a Thursday-night meeting in the same stucco building several years later, there are 27 members and 11 new people hoping to join. The white-bearded Cotler, now an officer in the agricultural organization, says Little Lake has been rapidly growing, with more than 60 members overall.
The Willits grange isn't alone. In California, membership in this 145-year-old agricultural institution is surging. Yannick Phillips, a legislative advocate with California State Grange, reports that though grange membership fell nationally by over 23,000 between 2008 and 2011, the Golden State's membership has increased by 893 people.
Like Elks and Masonic lodges, grange halls have long dotted America's rural landscapes, offering pancake breakfasts and meeting spaces for 4-H clubs. But North Bay grangers aren't exactly the old-cronies network one might expect of a fraternal organization founded in 1867. Instead, they're a who's who of go-local politics—organic dairy farmers, Petaluma City Council members and farm-to-table restaurateurs who have served on the Climate Protection Campaign board, founded Willits Economic Localization and assisted in the startup of West County's much-anticipated Spiral Foods co-op. And in March of 2011, a Chico-based granger named Pamm Larry began a massive, grass-roots signature-gathering effort with hundreds of grangers participating. It became Proposition 37, the initiative that would have required labeling on GMO foods.
But not all is growth and naturally sweetened political granola on the Left Coast. Proposition 37 was voted down earlier this month following a $45.6 million "No on 37" campaign, led by multinational biotech giant Monsanto. And a hushed political scuffle between California's grange master Bob McFarland and national grange master Ed Luttrell has resulted in a lawsuit and national efforts to displace state leadership. In a time when the interests of organic farmers and large-scale agriculture clash in million-dollar ad wars, division is creeping into the historically nonpartisan grange.
"You shouldn't be able to find it," national grange master Ed Luttrell says.
He's responding to my assertion that I can't find any information on his reason for suspending state master Bob McFarland on Aug. 6.
"That's an internal process," he continues. "We do not make such things public. They're kept within our organization so no reputations are harmed until due process has been worked all the way through."
The grange is a nonprofit with several tiers—local, state and national. Each tier elects officers, who answer to the officials above them. According to court documents, Luttrell claims the suspended state master refused to cede control of the state grange to him, so the national master filed a civil court case in October. A tentative ruling from Oct. 17 denies the national grange's plea to be awarded control of the state's assets, building keys and computer passwords.
The genesis of the issue, however, is unclear: "Moving party plaintiff National Grange declines to specify the offense committed by the President of the California Grange," the record reads.
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.