The end of an era

Members of the GRUB Cooperative scatter, following the farm’s new ownership

Members of the GRUB Cooperative over the years gathered one last time for a group photo on the steps of the large Victorian where they lived.

Members of the GRUB Cooperative over the years gathered one last time for a group photo on the steps of the large Victorian where they lived.

Photo by Karen Laslo

It seemed like a typical Sunday at the GRUB Cooperative on Dayton Road. Visitors streamed onto the sprawling property, making their way past the large Victorian house, several outbuildings, and the adjoining Heartseed Farm. They ate handpicked grapes and took turns participating in an open mic beneath GRUB’s signature walnut tree. The distant mountains rose behind acres of orchards on three sides, while roosters crowed and trains rumbled by.

If it weren’t for the nearby dusty remains of the cooperative’s massive estate sale—bookshelves, a couch, lamps, fabric remnants—a visitor would be hard-pressed to notice that the alternative living and sustainability institution was coming to a close at the end of the week, after seven years.

The cooperative’s members—several of whom co-founded GRUB in October 2008—had declared an all-day, all-night open community party, to “close the circle” on the living and farming experiment.

“Our mission was to strengthen the local foodshed, to give people access [to learn] how to grow food,” explained Max Kee, co-founder of the cooperative and a farmer at Heartseed, the CSA farm that shared the GRUB Cooperative’s land, and which also declared an end last week. “How many people are there who have lived here, and are now active in farming, either in this community or elsewhere? I say we’ve been very successful.”

Many organizations that share roots in GRUB—several bearing the cooperative’s name—will continue on, including GRUB Grown Nursery, which operated on the cooperative’s premises. The nursery is moving to Riparia, another farming community in south Chico. The GRUB CSA Farm, which moved away from the cooperative land in 2012 in anticipation of exactly such a lease-related eventuality, remains unaffected and continues at its location on West Sacramento Avenue. The GRUB Education Program, which provides community and school garden support, will continue as well.

The cooperative and farm’s woes surfaced in January, when the property owner indicated to several members that he was seeking buyers for the farm. The cooperative responded with a public campaign to find potential buyers amenable to letting them stay. In early summer, the property was passed to the owner’s former wife. In late August, the new owner had announced her intention to not renew the lease, which ended on Oct. 1, say cooperative members.

“I feel a little naive now, but I was hopeful the lease would be renewed,” said Susie McAllister, cooperative member and Heartseed farmer. Despite a strong aversion to the industrial farming techniques in the neighboring almond and walnut orchards—often the farmers would break to close their windows, to ensure dust and chemicals didn’t enter their living space, McAllister said—she was “enthusiastic to continue for another year.”

The realities of living amid the almond orchards had already driven co-founders Stephanie and Tim Elliott and their children to move to Sonoma County in June. Kee, Karisha Langaker, and their daughter also had resolved to leave the valley, before the loss of the lease: “Our family had decided in February that we love this way of living, but we don’t know if this is where we want to live.” The impact of industrial agriculture made their small-farm way of life untenable, Kee explained.

At that final party Sept. 27, cooperative members fought back tears; many expressed gratitude for the years they tended the land. Several, including Kee and McAllister, saw the new ownership as an opportunity for the land’s renewal, as the buildings and infrastructure are “falling apart,” Kee said.

As the blood moon rose, some attended a grieving session; others began a late-night dance party in the Big Room, the community living room in the Victorian house and frequent setting for house parties or concerts for visiting musicians. Chicoan Karen Laslo, who photographed the GRUB Cooperative family throughout its seven years, took a final photo on the front steps. “I don’t like that they’re leaving. I’m concerned of a ‘brain drain,’” Laslo said, noting that this cooperative was not like the communes of her days. “These people are well-informed—they’re mostly well-educated college graduates [pursuing their ideals in sustainable agriculture].”

Geoff Hall, the newest cooperative member, moved in just days before getting the news it would not get a new lease. “My Chico experience has been framed by GRUB,” he said. He got married in the Big Room and had worked on the GRUB CSA Farm before moving to the property in August. He had intended on staying longer-term with the cooperative while finishing his degree at Butte College. Now he has had to pick up work and leave school to afford a new living space. He no longer envisions himself staying in Chico. “I think I’m leaving California for good. This place, it was my heart connection to Chico.”

Community members in attendance expressed appreciation for the space to grieve and to say their own farewells. “This has been a community project,” Kee stated. “We couldn’t go out without a gathering.”