The Fraternal Order of the Grange is a tool underutilized by farmers of our generation. Originating in 1867 as a movement of rural farmers collaborating to combat railroad monopoly, Granges are now established at a national, state, and local level; however, this network is little known by young farmers, as the age of Grange members generally parallels that of the average farming population. The usually outdated infrastructure of Granges around the country have fallen by the wayside, primarily being used as general community gathering spaces if being used at all. Often, local Granges are found in dilapidated buildings circa the early 1900’s, but are found in many towns across the country nonetheless. The network of California Granges is particularly strong, with over 176 in the state that, when combined, have about 10,000 members. The facilities in Willits are incredibly well maintained, with a large commercial kitchen for use by farmers and processors, huge gathering space that hosts agriculturally-oriented film screenings and the winter farmers market, and rental space for local businesses. It is hard to find a farming community more progressive and extensive (per capita) than Willits, CA. Based on our previous writing on the area, Driving Food Home is well connected in this northern California town and we felt as though we needed to return to further capitalize on this communities advancements in agriculture. Writing about as broad a topic as the National Grange Network is a tough one due to the extensiveness of this organization, but Willits has given us a well-established model to sketch a picture of the potential of Granges around the country.
Along with their infrastructure, within this past year The Little Lake Grange has been working on a project called The Grange Farm School, which had their first season this past spring. Developed by Michael Foley of Green Uprising Farm, and Master of the Little Lake Grange, The Grange Farm School project is looking to act as a template model for more Granges in creating a residential and experiential learning center as well as instilling tools for young farmers to think critically, creatively, and in terms of full systems thought. In charge of the program is a lovely woman named Ruthie, whose passion for the future of The Grange Farm School shines in her eyes and is reflected in her genuine smile as she walks us around the 12 acres the program leases from The Golden Rule Intentional Community (which leases their land to a few non-profits, including Ecology Action and T.R.A.I.L., a therapeutic horseback riding program). Fresh out of Columbia University with a degree in architecture and looking for a job, Ruthie found “the only place hiring young inexperienced architects” was farms. Thus began Ruthie’s journey down a path in agriculture after she took a job renovating a barn for a small dairy in Naselle, Washington, which eventually led into a position managing the dairy. Her work with animal husbandry, raw milk and cheese production continued after moving to Colorado and inquiring about a way to attain raw milk from operations with sustainable practices. After contacting James Ranch in Durango, CO about their heard share program, it was serendipitously the case that the ranch was looking for a new heard manager; Ruthie was offered the job. Becoming more interested in agriculture through her involvement with the Grange in Washington, she decided to merge both interests and interview for the position as the program manager for The Grange Farm School.
The Farm School program focuses on teaching five units over twelve weeks to their students. Topics covered include Organic Crop Production, Livestock Management, Business Management, Industrial Arts (including small machinery repair and maintenance), and a portion they call “Sustainability,” which focuses on ecological restoration and alternative energy resources. This program is different than working on an already-established farm; students over the next few years will have the ability to design a farm from scratch, making their own mistakes and fixing them along the way. Ruthie explains that she will get “to work with the students as a peer instead of a teacher. Really asking them, ‘How would you do it?’ when it comes to design approaches. I’m here to help us to ask the right questions. I don’t have all the answers; I’m here to facilitate connections and help find the right mentors and experts.” Students will spend 5 days a week on-site in classes taught by the staff and guest instructors, working on projects, and taking field trips to local farms on weekends. The future will bring the program full circle, with hopes to have students return for a few 12-week terms to contribute as leaders projects after completing the program the first time. The second term will also have the students working with local farmer mentors of their choice. College internship credits are available for the program through Mendocino College.
Ruthie, who has been focusing largely on livestock during her agricultural career, has busily been building infrastructure, developing a student residential program, creating curriculum, and starting a farm from scratch. Along with laying hens and meat birds, she also maintains a ½ acre garden. As someone who claims she’s no expert in growing vegetable crops, her broccoli is pretty impressive. In our travels, we’ve been surprised at the young farmer’s lack of awareness around the existence of Granges as resources; boards of Granges are often older farming community members, and thus have a strong conservative vein that could be easily balanced by young farmer involvement. The origins of Grange traditions incorporate Pagan and Greek philosophies. At each Grange, the ruling goddeses of Ceres (representing cereal grains and agriculture), Flora (representing flowers), and Pomona (representing the fruit) are celebrated. During our interview, Ruthie brought out volumes that described the extensive traditional ceremonies and design stipulations of traditional Grange facilities. Her grin was infectious as she reveled in her involvement with such historical agricultural traditions. Having young people like Ruthie involved in The Grange movement is very encouraging. Our young energy is needed in order to keep this political organization going, ensuring that young farmers are also represented in the capital through Grange lobbyists. Granges everywhere have the potential to offer programs such as The Grange Farm School to their community, encouraging the growth and development of the young farming network. The Little Lake Grange truly is a pillar of progress, a model to be followed by anyone looking to establish sustainability in their local Grange branch.