Farmers fighting farmers

But rechristened California Guild claims ruling makes it less likely its former national parent will collect

The American River Grange hall in Rancho Cordova is one of dozens throughout California that is at the center of a legal custody battle.

The American River Grange hall in Rancho Cordova is one of dozens throughout California that is at the center of a legal custody battle.

Photo courtesy of Asilvero CC by-SA 3.0

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

After drawing comparisons to an authoritarian takeover, a Sacramento trial judge began the process of transferring millions of dollars in money and property from a state organization pledged to represent small farmers to a national one supporting industrial agriculture. The March 21 ruling also means the loss of the Sacramento headquarters of the California Guild, which used to be California’s chapter of the National Grange.

In a victory for the Guild, though, Sacramento Superior Court Judge David I. Brown revised the National Grange’s proposal so the national entity cannot enter peoples’ homes to reclaim Grange property, while also ruling that most local chapters won’t be affected by a transfer of power he deemed “somewhat totalitarian.”

“It kind of has a Brownshirt quality to it,” Brown said, comparing the Grange’s receivership proposal to the paramilitary militia that helped Adolf Hitler rise to power. “And I don’t mean that in the way of the Nazis, but it does. It feels like it’s overreaching.”

The National Grange is the oldest farmers’ advocacy group in the United States, predating the Civil War. Farmers organized local chapters with Grange Halls built and paid for by members to serve as the center of rural communities. A legal battle split the California chapter from the National Grange in 2015. The National Grange maintains the state chapter wasn’t following its bylaws and didn’t appeal getting kicked out.

Last week’s court hearing could put as many as 89 granges and guilds in play for rural communities struggling to stay afloat as farms consolidate and residents move to urban areas.

The battle stems to 2009, when small farmers began restoring long-dilapidated grange buildings in California’s rural communities and dissenting over the National Grange’s support of genetically-modified crops and larger farms. Tensions peaked in 2012, when the National Grange sued to oust its California chapter, which was forced to change its name to the California Guild following the divorce.

Individual granges had to decide which organization they wished to associate with. While members were allowed to switch, the dispute came down to who owned what property—the California Guild or the National Grange.

The courts ultimately decided the case resembled cases where small churches separated from national congregations, sparking property disputes. Like those cases, the courts ended up supporting the national entity, despite small farmers’ claims that they bought and paid for the halls.

At last Wednesday’s hearing, Brown called the courtroom to order to appoint a “receiver,” an officer of the court tasked with carrying out the prior ruling, which he did. Six defunct halls owing the National Grange money—and the Guild’s Sacramento headquarters—will enter into the transfer process.

However, Brown also amended the National Grange’s motion, preventing it from being able to enter homes to take possession of its property. The judge’s ruling found that 83 active community chapters that switched over may be affiliated with the California Guild, but are not owned by it. The California Guild and its affiliates contend that the local halls belong to local chapters, which paid property taxes and maintained them for decades.

Brown said his main concern was that local chapters could play a shell game, trying to hide assets or property that belongs to the National Grange.

“The problem is if the receiver doesn’t get the books and has to come back to me and says, ’The [asset] is being hidden every time I look,’” Brown said, calling for regular reporting to ensure that doesn’t happen. “Money is disappearing—I have no confidence that is not happening. … I want to ensure the Grange gets what its long since been entitled to.”

Attorney Eli Underwood, representing the Guild and joined by six other lawyers representing other chapters, said all they cared about was ensuring due process.

“Let’s start with an accounting. It begins with a request for our books,” Underwood said.

Brown ultimately appointed the receiver and ordered him to produce a list of the Guild’s assets due to the National Grange, which includes $2.4 million. As for the properties, the National Grange can now absorb six Guild halls, including two in Lake County and one apiece in Stanislaus, Merced and Tehama counties. The National Grange also has claim to the Guild’s local headquarters on 3830 U Street. The building is approximately 4,600 square feet and worth $701,566, according to the Sacramento County Assessor’s Office.

The Guild noted in a release that the receiver will now draw up a list of which properties will be handed over, though collection of the properties will be determined at another hearing on April 13. In a statement, a Guild supporter said the judge’s ruling may make it too difficult for the National Grange to collect.

“Though the [Sacramento] Superior Court has directed the receiver to produce a list of traceable assets of the California Guild, which the Grange feels it is due, it has denied the Grange its reach for our local chapters,” wrote David Zink of the Guild Legal Co-op. “For that, it seems the Grange will have [to] pursue each local Guild chapter in its county court—which [is] not likely to occur until well after the April hearing, if at all.”