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An American institution is going through a difficult time. The Grange is a fraternal organization started after the Civil War for rural families, mostly farmers. These days, its membership has been declining and Grange halls have been closing. But a new generation of farmers has started joining, a generation interested in organic agriculture and environmental issues. As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, their politics and activism are causing some friction.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The Grange has been around for nearly 150 years and it played a significant role in some big issues, like successfully lobbying to regulate monopolies. It supported women suffrage and it still pushes congress to improve rural infrastructure. For many, the local Grange hall was the place to be when they were growing up.
ED LUTTRELL: If you wanted to go to a dance, you went to the Grange hall.
BRADY: Ed Luttrell is the national president of the Grange.
LUTTRELL: There wasn't dancing anywhere else in town. So if you wanted to go where the pretty girls were or the handsome young men, you went down to the Grange and you participated.
BRADY: In the 1870s, Grange membership was estimated at as high as 2 million. Today, it's less than a tenth of that. Still, there are more than 2,000 Grange halls left, and many of them still host monthly potluck dinners. We're at the Mary's River Grange, almost 100 miles south of Portland, Oregon. A few people are setting the table. Across the hall there's a stage. Above, huge timber beams, and underfoot, a newly refinished wood floor. Jay Sexton holds the post of lecturer here and says in 2009 this local institution almost shut down.
JAY SEXTON: It had been voted by the few remaining older members to close this Grange.
BRADY: But words spread. New people showed up and many of them came with new ideas.
SEXTON: Thinking about having the Grange be an advocate for local farms, healthy clean food, contact between producers and consumers in farmer's markets.
BRADY: Now, this Grange invites young farmers to talk about things such as raising hogs humanely and naturally. And as members load up plates of food, they exchange tips about organic gardening.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What about letting strawberries produce the first season they're in the ground? Is that a good idea?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think it's okay.
BRADY: What happened at Marys River Grange is also happening in other communities. A few granges in Oregon have joined a loose coalition dubbed Green Granges. They work together to advance the goals some of these new grange members feel passionately about. That's fine, says national president Luttrell, but the Grange has a history of supporting all forms of agriculture, including industrial farms.
LUTTRELL: We do have some of our Green Granges that want to be exclusive, not inclusive. Basically, it's my way or the highway. And in those cases, I really feel strongly that those members need to understand our history and understand where we came from.
BRADY: In California, something similar to the Green Grange movement is happening. State Grange master Bob McFarland spoke at a rally last summer supporting a measure to label food with genetically modified ingredients.
BOB MCFARLAND: The consumers of California have a right to know what they put in their bodies, where it comes from and how it is produced.
BRADY: Voters rejected the measure but this advocacy caused friction with the national Grange. A legal battle has since flared up, with national leaders accusing the California Grange of going its own way and violating Grange rules. In April, California was stripped of its charter. Gus Frederick(ph) is with the Green Granges in Oregon and says he understands why older Grange members are upset by this new generation.
GUS FREDERICK: Change is scary, you know, and they see, you know, what they may identify as "hippies" - quote/unquote - coming in and, all of a sudden, becoming involved in something that traditionally they hadn't been involved before. They may - oh, my god, we're being taken over.
BRADY: But Frederick says that's not the case. Many of the new grangers are inspired by the founding principles of the Grange. They enjoy repeating the stories of Grangers in history standing up to railroad monopolies. That history is one of the things that attracted probably the most famous Grange member today. Krist Novoselic co-founded the grunge rock band, Nirvana.
KRIST NOVOSELIC: So I went from grunge to Grange.
BRADY: Novoselic is the master at his local grange in Southwest Washington State.
NOVOSELIC: I have an issue with the label Green Grange, because we should just all be grangers. Okay? Our grange is a grange. It's not a Green Grange. It's not a liberal grange. It's not a conservative grange. It's just a grange.
BRADY: Grange leaders are frustrated with this internal conflict. They'd rather focus on attracting new members. Susan Noah is master of the Oregon State Grange.
SUSAN NOAH: In the Grange, we refer to ourselves as family. We call each other brothers and sisters. And so, as a brother and sister you may fight, you may argue. But at the end of the day, you still remain friends and family.
BRADY: But first, this family will have to work out its differences and decide what direction the Grange is headed. Jeff Brady, NPR News.