Thursday, November 19, 2015

Grange Continues to Work for Farmers, Local Communities

One of my stories from the December issue of Empire Farm & Dairy:

Empire Farm & Dairy

Long before New York Farm Bureau, New York Farmland Protection or New York Farm Viability Institute were serving farmers, the New York Grange was at the forefront of helping the state’s agrarian society grow and proper.

And though today it is overshadowed by some other organizations, the New York Grange is growing and still influencing agricultural society.

In 2015, the Grange added a new chapter in Albany, said state Master/President Stephen Coye, of Ravena, Albany County.

“That chapter is right inside the city of Albany,” Coye said. “There aren’t many farms in Albany, but we have a new Grange chapter there.”

That shows the essence of the Grange — an organization that fights for farmers and doesn’t require that someone be a farmer to join.

“There are 187 Granges in the state and some don’t have a farmer in them,” Coye said. “But they are Grange members because they want to address situations in their communities. What I always say is ‘the Grange is what it needs to be where it is.’”

The Grange begins

The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry (the full name) was founded in 1867, making it the same age as Cornell University’s land-grant agriculture college. 

The Grange was started in the aftermath of the Civil War as farmers in the Midwest realized they needed to band together to work on issues of concern in rural areas.

A group of men — Oliver H. Kelley, William Saunders, Aaron B. Grosh, William M. Ireland, John R. Thompson, Francis McDowell and John Trimble — wanted to advocate for rural America, educate farmers and others about rural life and agriculture and help their neighbors thrive. The men were assisted in their work by Caroline Hall, who was later named an honorary eighth founder of the Grange, according to information on the Grange website.

The Grange is a fraternal organization (like the Masons), with rituals it continues to this day. But through the years, the National Grange stood up for farmers and rural communities.

Bryan Marchefsky, communications manager for the National Grange, said the Grange was in the forefront of fighting railroad monopolies in the early years of its existence, hellbent to stop the high prices the railroad companies charged to ship farm goods. 

The Grange grew quickly in these early years as farmers from across the country banded together to fight the railroads — a fight that went on for more than 10 years.

In fact, encyclopedia Brittanica says during the railroad fight heyday in 1870, Grange membership soared to 800,000 and there was a Grange chapter in every state. 

The Grange website says the organization continued to play a role in politics for many years and even helped create the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which called for the first federal regulation of railroads to control unfair shipping rates.

“In decades to come, politicians took a cue from the Granger Laws and created controls over many big business industries, from meatpacking to drug making, on the grounds that governmental regulations were essential to protect the interests of all the people, not just farmers,” according to the Grange website.

Grange later worked on getting mail delivery, telepphone lines and electricity into rural areas, Marchefsky said.

Grange issues today

Today, members in the 250 Community Granges and Junior Granges in New York state are pushing a number of issues on the state and national levels. 

Grange voting members statewide recently gathered for their annual convention Oct. 24 through 27 in Auburn and discussed legislative issues to work on in the coming year and some to send to the National Grange for action at its national convention held Nov. 10 through 14 in Lincoln, Neb.

“We have a legislative person in the state Grange who spends a great deal of time working with state legislators and developing position papers on issues,” Coye said.

Coye himself makes trips to Albany (he is a retired state Senate staffer and began his career with former Senate majority leader Warren Anderson) and Washington, D.C. to speak about issues important to farmers and rural residents.

“One of our big issues right now is rural broadband,” Coye said. He said so much farm work is done on the Internet today that it is imperative for farmers and others in rural areas to have high-speed Internet access. But cable or telecommunications companies usually demand high density of residences before they will expand cable lines. In rural areas, there can be miles between houses. 

“I realize it’s an economic issue for the cable companies,” he said. “For the big companies like AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner, it’s not part of their business model. But for us, rural broadband is as important as rural electrification was in the 1930s.”

The Grange’s activism in the past has led to the formation of other organizations that still exist today, such as Cooperative Extension, 4-H and FFA. These groups continue with Grange’s focus of education and advocating for farmers.

New members welcomed

Another large issue for the Grange today is recruiting new members. Coye said just like many other service organization, the Grange is losing its older members and needs to add to its rosters to remain viable.

Matthew Horton, who lives in Schuyler County near Painted Post in the Southern Tier, is a member of the Steuben County Grange. He is one of the younger members and works with youths to get them involved in the organization.

“I came into Grange as a Junior Granger at 18 and liked it. I could come here to see all my friends and and we got to travel, going to Northeast Youth Conference and the National Grange convention,” he said. “If we aren’t getting young people to join, then we will be in trouble.”

He emphasizes to youth groups that Grange “has more of a family feel to it,” but it also is a great way to get involved and do good things for the community.
“We put on a dairy festival in Bath each year, put on displays at the county fair and at Empire Farm Days,” Horton said. He also has worked as a camp counselor at Grange camp.

In addition to its work with farmers, rural life and education, the Grange helps local communities in many ways. Many rent out their Grange halls to other groups. They also put on special events for the community or raise money to give to local organizations.

Alma Jean Heidenreich, who has been a Grange member for more than 50 years, said the Taft Settlement Grange in North Syracuse makes candy poppers that are put in the military courtesy room at 
Hancock International Airport for veterans and their families. 

Horton said his Grange offers baked goods and coffee at the rest areas on Route 86.

“Our main focus is to help communities — helping communities at the local level,” Marchefsky said.

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