In "The State of the Grange" (Jan. 3), Linda Stansberry detailed the delicate state of health in which an organization at the bedrock of American democracy finds itself. Civil war is the worst kind of catastrophe, and why the National Grange started rejecting parts of itself after 150 years is baffling. But the case isn't hopeless. Sometimes, it takes a real fracas like this one to awaken us to what we stand to lose. The Grange was once an organization of fire-breathing agrarian radicals, and it can be again.
I fell in love with the Mattole Grange when I first stumbled into it one Fourth of July in the early 1970s. I was utterly dazzled by the spectacle Linda described: ranchers in big hats leading their beaming wives in slow circles across what seemed like an endless dance floor, gleeful young stompers who insisted that the band play "Running Bear" again and again, phalanxes of children racing between or under them. For a jaded New Yorker, tired of anonymity and sad politics, it was a sort of Brigadoon, a vision of community. I joined right away.
Local 569's relationship with the upper echelons of the state and national Grange hierarchy at the time is best described by the Rabbi's blessing for the Tsar in Fiddler on the Roof: "God bless and keep the Tsar ... as far away from us as possible!" There was a dim sense that it was not friendly. We paid our dues.
Everyone learns something in school about the Grange's heroic fight against the railroads, land-grabbers and real estate speculators in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the champion of the little farmer, the Jeffersonian ideal. Here is a fragment from Grange Melodies, a popular songbook published in 1905: "Brothers of the plow! The power is with you! The world in expectation waits for action strong and true! Oppression stalks abroad, monopolies abound, their giant hands already clutch the tillers of the ground!"
And here, the opening lines of 1874's Farmers' Declaration of Independence: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a class of people, suffering from long-continued systems of oppression and abuse, to rouse themselves from an apathetic indifference to their own interests, which has become habitual..." and so, gloriously, on.
Humboldt County granges were some of the biggest firebrands. This resolution was passed by the Ferndale Grange in 1878:
"Whereas, a people view with alarm the growing tendency [by legislation] of a bourbon aristocracy ... which if not checked will finally reduce the working classes of America to mere slaves and vassals. ... The toiling masses of this country are today to the banks and corporations what the peons of Mexico are to the aristocracy of that so-called Republic. ...
"Resolved that we look upon this bourbon element with suspicion and distrust in their effort to subvert that form of government bequeathed to us by our fathers, and to erect instead a semi-despotic government controlled by a centralized aristocracy."
These were our great-grandparents. What might they do if they were alive today, when the richest 1 percent owns more than the rest of the world? When 85 families own more than 3.5 billion people combined?
The Grange's passionate defense of freedom and equality ebbed away over the last century and, by the time I joined, it was generally perceived to be in the pocket of Big Ag. It did not rise to the defense of small farmers during the 1980s collapse in the Heartland, when they were being bankrupted by agribusiness and land was being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. The Grange did not prevent small towns being turned into rural ghettos with farmers reduced to low-wage workers in river-polluting concentrated animal feeding operations. It backed the weakening of regulations on pesticides and herbicides, and of the Endangered Species Act. Recently a U.S. Supreme Court case, with very questionable particulars, of a 75-year-old farmer sued by Monsanto for patent violation, drew this comment from the National Grange: "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 lost all profit-making potential after the first sale of a replicating product."
This salute to the profit motive is repugnant to the Grange's Statement of Purposes, which requires that the pursuit of knowledge have the objective of increasing the public and social good.
Nowadays, many farmers don't own their own seed: They sign a contract for a one-year lease. Small farms continue to disappear. Big Ag controls much of our lives. Monsanto and Syngenta are on the point of merging. Dow and Dupont merged late last year. Six transnational corporations control 63 percent of the seed market and 75 percent of the agrochemical market. Three firms control 49 percent of the farm machinery market. Six giants control 90 percent of the world's food. Recently, California passed Assembly Bill 2470 which outlaws small farmers from freely selling or trading their seeds.
But the Grange has deep, deep roots. Its rituals go back to ancient times when the awful powers of the natural world were present and revered. We need that spirit now. It resonates with the wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The above-described awful powers are currently in our face.
Now is the time to join the Grange! It is a democratic institution; a change in policy is possible. This is no time for a civil war or for California Grangers to back away and form another organization. There are plenty of them out there already and none have the venerability of a 150-year-old voice. California grangers need to argue their case for the planet on the national level. They must take up the old fight again to roll back monopolies that are accelerating the destruction. And, not just because of the beauty of its historic and capacious halls, but by the generosity of its inspiration, the Grange's voice will be heard.
Ellen Taylor, a 40-year Humboldt County resident and long-time granger, lives in Petrolia.
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