In Sebastopol, a new generation embraces the ideals of a historic agricultural fraternity
Three years ago Santa Rosa attorney Lawrence Jaffe decided he needed to do something about the graffiti on the side of the long-neglected Sebastopol Grange Hall. So he became the Grange Master.
That’s a bit of a simplification, but Jaffe nonetheless likes to show people around the outside of the squat 1948 hall along Highway 12 that’s recently been painted a tasteful sage green.
“See, it looks good, right?” he asks, giving an impromptu tour of the exterior, pointing out the dusty, burnt scrub around the building he plans to plant with vegetables in the spring. Meanwhile, young farmers haul in bags of local rice, wheat and produce inside to sell to co-op members the following day.
It’s quite a change from three years ago when Grange Hall #306 had only five members and was beginning to crumble to dust. Since becoming Grange Master, Jaffe’s helped raise that number to 120 with young homesteaders, DIY producers, greenhorn farmers and political foodies. The parking lot is frequently full as members (anyone is free to join) participate in movie nights, community dinners, re-skilling classes, discussions on banking and renewable energy. Additionally, the Sebastopol Grange supports political causes (such as Prop 37) and is hosting a local food cooperative’s nine-week food purchasing program. Jaffe’s group is also working with 4H, the Future Farmers of America and actively working to raise money for scholarships.
The Sebastopol Grange, like about 40 other Granges in California are experiencing a resurgence with the flood of interest in local food systems, organic farming and farmer’s markets. The historic ideals of the Grange — community, political action, education, self-empowerment and the appreciation of agricultural work — speak as much to modern society as they did in its founding in 1870.
Jaffe, a well-known environmental activist and member of the county’s Community Development Commission Board, FarmLink and former farmer, is somehow the most likely and most unlikely guy to be running one of the state’s oldest agricultural fraternities. Organized in Sebastopol in 1898, Grange #306 is one of 11 granges in Sonoma County, and one of about 169 in the state. But #306, like many other granges, had fallen into dusty, disuse over the years, as family farms fell onto hard times and the agricultural population aged. Few urbanites even know the purpose of a grange anymore.
“The principles of what the Grange was founded on are what we need right now,” said Jaffe. That means fostering community, sound economics, taking care of our land and eating clean food. “This is the time for a Renaissance,” he said. “We are re-occupying the halls and serving our communities,” said Jaffe, 47, who is easily a decade or two younger than his Grange Master predecessors, wears an Food Justice T-shirt up-cycled from the Goodwill and peppers the conversation with progressive ideas like ” community resilience”, “post carbon” and “GMO-free”. “That represents my community,” he says of the mix of new and old ideas fomenting in the heart of Sebastopol.
“It’s too bad that a word like ‘toil’ is so out of fashion, but that’s what we’re honoring — the farmers who built this hall and this County. We want to preserve their legacy and welcome future farmers to learn agricultural arts,” he said.
Nationally, there are around 350,000 grange members and that number is growing. Jaffe says Sebastopol may be slightly ahead of the curve, but that community-gathering places like the Grange are integral to the nation’s future. “It’s time to inspire people to action. If we are getting ready for the future, that means taking care of our self, and our local community. To do that we need a place to come together and transfer ideas for growing food and growing our local economy.”
And while much of the membership are already among the “converted” when it comes to sustainable food sheds, organic produce and the ideals of food justice, Jaffe’s says that anyone can grow a tomato.
“America needs 50 million new farmers,” he says of the need for individuals to move toward self-reliance and responsibility toward their own food. But at the end of the day, its also about bringing people together. “Look, we’re having a good time by brining in good food, music, speakers, ideas and supporting our local food economy,” he said.