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.