Growing the grange
Activists transform the Chico Grange into a political powerhouse
Chuck Voss recalled the state of the Chico Grange when he joined in 2006.
“It had 21 members,” he said. “The nine to 10 active members were in their 80s and 90s. It was almost a dead organization except for the fact that they were still renting out the hall [for community events such as weddings and church functions]. … I was 57 years old. They needed some younger blood.”
Today, the Chico Grange, located at 2775 Nord Ave. (the section of Nord near Henshaw Avenue—not Highway 32), boasts 120 paid members, 25 to 50 of those active at the regular meetings held on the first Tuesday of each month that feature educational programs on subjects related to local farming and healthful food. Recent programs have covered topics such as local rice farming, terraced hillside farming in Southeast Asia, and European farmers’ markets.
Sustainability-friendly groups such as Slow Food Shasta-Cascade and Chico, Chico Food Network and GRUB have all held well-attended events at the grange hall. Local healthful-food activist Richard Roth (see “Local Heroes 2009,” CN&R, Nov. 26) has hosted a number of nutrition-education events there for parents and children, and local organic-gardening teacher and toolmaker David Grau has held more than one series of wildly successful classes at the grange since its 2006 renaissance.
The age of Chico Grange members now ranges from late 20s to the 83-year-old woman (currently the on-site caretaker of the property) who was a member when Voss, a retired electronics expert for Bally Manufacturing Corp., joined the organization.
Voss—who is currently vice president of the grange, and was the first president under the reorganization that took place shortly after he joined—and outgoing president and local sustainability activist Jon Luvaas (who also joined in 2006) have been doing a lot of the moving and shaking that has so noticeably revitalized the Chico Grange.
In fact, Luvaas has been such an active part of the Chico Grange’s metamorphosis from a nearly defunct organization to the growing, cutting-edge, sustainability-focused nonprofit outfit it is today that he recently was elected to a two-year term on the Executive Committee of the California State Grange.
At the same time as Luvaas’ appointment to the committee—at the State Grange’s 137th annual membership meeting in the Sacramento suburb of Orangevale, in October—the State Grange adopted the Chico Grange’s “Proposal for Local Farmland Preservation and Food Security,” penned by Luvaas himself.
“Be it resolved,” reads the new State Grange document, “[t]he California State Grange hereby reaffirms its primary historic mission: to support local small scale and family farming as an essential mainstay of local economies and food security, including support for farmland preservation, farmers markets, community and school gardens, and gardening and food storage education at Grange halls and in Grange communities.”
The National Grange, which is headquartered a block away from the White House in Washington, D.C., gave the thumbs-up at its annual November convention to the California State Grange’s move to adopt Luvaas’ proposal, as it brings California in line with current National Grange policy.
“Especially since California is such a major agricultural state,” said Luvaas in a recent interview, “it’s so good that the emphasis [of the State Grange] is on small farms and local growers. Corporate agriculture is doing fine; it’s the small farms and local growers that have been struggling for decades.”
It’s perhaps fitting that Chico is taking a leadership role in the State Grange, given that the town’s founder, John Bidwell, was a founding member of the State Grange and its first president.
Luvaas said the reason he got involved in the Chico Grange in the first place was because of its historic function in rural communities as a meeting place—and he saw the possibilities in that.
“The Chico Grange [now] serves as a focal point for organizations that are concerned about conserving the local farmland and strengthening local food security,” said Luvaas. “The grange put on a series, what we called an ‘agricultural roundtable,’ in the spring. A number of experts on farmland issues presented, and a number of people attended.
“One of the things that came out of that was a series of proposals to the city of Chico to strictly conserve farmland and to promote farmers’ markets, community gardens and local outlets for regionally grown food.”
The Chico Grange’s proposals to city staff, said Luvaas, were presented for consideration as part of their work on the city’s new general plan, slated to be completed by late 2010.
Voss agrees that a big part of the mission of the new Chico Grange is to be at the forefront of the healthy, small-farm-focused political activism that the National Grange has been known for since its inception in 1866.
“The grange is essentially a lobbying organization,” offered Voss. “If a member [at the local level] wants to see a bill passed through their state legislature, they can go through the grange, not through Wally Herger. They bring [their proposal] to the state convention and, if approved, the State Grange works through their lobbyists.”
Roth, who was named chair of the State Grange’s Health Committee in November, has a proposal in the works that has to do with efforts to combat childhood onset of type 2 diabetes for presentation and consideration at next year’s annual State Grange meeting. He calls the Grange “a sleeping giant” as far as its potential influence on local, state and national food and farming policy.
Luvaas agrees. “Locally, we can have a huge influence on state policy,” he said. “And by influencing the direction of the State Grange, we will have a two-pronged benefit—the influence on state policy, and an influence on other [local] granges that will influence their local policy.
“Some granges are folding because of aging membership, because they haven’t shifted to be relevant to younger ages,” he added. “But we’re helping to influence that shift, and it’s happening statewide.”