Grange Wars

by Dawn Hodson, March 22, 2017

A READER WRITES: There is an unfortunate civil war going on in Redwood Valley between long time residents. One would think that anti-GMO, pro-organic farming advocates would all be on the same page, but in RV, they are divided and in conflict. The issue is the old Grange Hall.  Once the National Grange, now promoting industrial and GMO agriculture as necessary to feed the world, revoked the California State Grange charter in 2013, that left the status of all the 182 Granges in California in question. The National Grange set up a new, California State Grange, which sued the revoked Grange for the trademark name and won. That left the 182 CA Granges to decide if they would go with the newly formed California State Grange, or the newly renamed California Guild.  The organic farmers of Redwood Valley are now in a war over this issue. The majority faction followed the votes of the membership and took actions accordingly, always offering means for compromise and community cooperation to the disaffected minority. The minority faction disagreed and recently locked the majority out of the Hall. The majority faction is paying all the bills, and the minority faction is keeping all the rental revenues. The battle may have to be settled in court.  I think this is an issue worth investigating. I was hoping that an independent investigative reporter could look more deeply into this issue and report on the tragic story of a functional community that broke.

DAWN HODSON, of the Georgetown Gazette, has written the following excellent account of what has happened with the Grange, with Part Two coming right up... 

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It’s hard to imagine The National Grange, this country’s oldest agricultural organization and one devoted to both community betterment and the protection of agriculture, to be at the center of so much litigation.

But there it is.

Officially referred to as the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the organization was founded after the Civil War in 1867. Operating in 37 states, this year it celebrates its 150th birthday. Effective at lobbying for both agricultural and political issues, it successfully lobbied to establish the Cooperative Extension Service, Rural Free Delivery and the Farm Credit System, among other programs.

So what happened to make it the epicenter of so much ill feeling?

Multiple issues seem to figure into the turmoil: conflicting personalities, politics and a divergence in philosophy between some of the local chapters and the state and national organization over agricultural policy.

California, in particular, became an irritant of the the National Grange after Bob McFarland was elected Master of the State Grange in 2009 and again in 2011. Master is the same as being president.

McFarland, hoping to revitalize the State Grange, added new members and local granges and supported resolutions in favor of organic farming and against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

But in 2011, the relationship between McFarland and the head of the National Grange, Ed Lutrell, soured. Lutrell claimed that McFarland had not followed certain procedures. He at first suspended McFarland and later sent him a prewritten letter of resignation which McFarland refused to sign. That then set in motion a split in the state organization and subsequent lawsuits.

With the battle lines now drawn, in 2013 Lutrell revoked California’s 145 year old charter.

Following that, 95 percent of members in most of the state’s 206 granges reelected McFarland to a third term and decided to continue functioning as a State Grange separate from the National.

At that point, Lutrell demanded the granges turn over all their buildings, land and bank accounts to the National Grange and stop operating as separate organizations using the name grange. The National Organization also reconstituted the California State Grange with a new Master, Ed Komski.

McFarland and many of the former granges then formed a separate organization called the California Guild after they lost a trademark lawsuit over who has the right to use the name grange. Those groups now call themselves guilds although that judgment is being appealed.

With local granges forced to choose between the State Grange and the State Guild, the State Guild now claims 125 chapters while the State Grange claims all the former granges in California, even those who chose to go with the guild, because of a separate lawsuit that was decided in the State Grange’s favor. According to a Sacramento Superior Court decision in 2015, all the property of the granges belongs to the State Grange. That judgment is also being appealed.

Meanwhile other lawsuits have been filed and according to one grange member, there are at least seven or eight of them now.

The renegades of El Dorado County

Particularly rich in granges, El Dorado County has six including the first one founded in the state: Pilot Hill which is in Cool. Others include the Gold Trail Grange in Coloma, the Hangtown Grange in Placerville, the Marshall Grange in Garden Valley, the Pleasant Valley Grange in Diamond Springs and the Three Forks Grange in Somerset.

Three of them have since left the State Grange including Marshall, Pleasant Valley and Pilot Hill which now calls itself the Cool Community Association.

Mary Jane Battaglia, who with her daughter Bonnie and husband belong to the Pleasant Valley Grange – now Guild, have their own take on what set these events in play.

“Prior to Bob getting into office, the National Grange controlled who became the state master,” said Mary Jane. “There was this one lady who thought it was her time to be master and fully expected to become master and was backed by national. But Bob got elected and that did it. She then went to national and asked for help … The gist of it is insurrection in the ranks. It all started with that one person mad because she didn’t get to be the master and McFarland was. McFarland didn’t back down which also added fuel to the fire.”

Wally DuBois, a leader of the Cool Community Center, had a slightly different take on why it all happened. He said in a prior election, the man who ran against McFarland is the son of the woman who is now the head of the National Grange and that accounts for the sour grapes.

Apparently the leaders at the National Grange found themselves increasingly put out by what was happening in California and their inability to control it.

A separate issue was that many of the members of the California granges were in favor of organic farming and opposed the planting of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

When the National Grange supported the Supreme Court’s decision in 2014 and sided with Monsanto after the company sued an Indiana soybean farmer for violating one of their patents, some members saw it as a threat to their own views on agriculture.

“Bob started the movement to label GMOs and to legalize hemp for rope,” said DuBois. “National doesn’t like that. They are tied into Monsanto and big agriculture. They just wanted an excuse to get rid of McFarland.”

Land Grab?

With two different organizations vying for control in California, the dispute now comes down to who gets the assets of the granges. The state and national organizations say they all belong to them. The members of the breakaway guilds say no, it’s theirs.

“There is no legal standing for the State Grange to take the land and buildings of granges,” said DuBois. “National never drove a nail, painted a board, paid a tax or cleaned a toilet. Originally, the granges were meeting places for farmers, warehouses so they could leverage their buying power of things like fencing and seeds. A lot of these places were built in rural areas where there was nothing. Then cities built up to them and their value went up.

“So when the big war started in 2010, 2011, they expected California to roll over. They did the same thing in Wyoming. They jerked the money and there are no halls in Wyoming any longer. We calculate that up to 2014 they spent $3.5 million on lawsuits trying to get Bob and get the California granges. Komski and another guy were talking about a supergrange. Take all the weak halls, sell them off and put the money into a supergrange,” he continued. “A witness said the concept was that Komski wanted to cloud the title to all the halls so they could have more control. Komski has always said we own your halls and your property and Bob has always said no, they belong to the community. These lawsuits are designed to suck the funds out of the original state grange. They are corporate tactics Monsanto would use. They hire a lawyer who specializes in going out and crushing small companies. Basically they are saying we don’t own these granges, give them to us.

“The grange laws did not state who individual grange property belonged to until the National Grange in 2012-13 changed it. It was unstated who it belonged to. The only thing the national bylaws stated was if a state fell below six halls, that state may have its charter revoked. Before 2012, upon revocation or if a hall dissolves, those assets would go to national to be put back into the hall and opened up under new management. All the granges have to do their own fund-raising to buy property and build the halls and keep it open. We’re all volunteers but we all have one agreement, and that is it should stay with the community. Up until recently the national and state agreed with that idea and tried to put in backstops against anyone selling the property. But in the 80’s there was a national shift from the members being our assets to the halls being our assets. Komski and the new national leader Betsy Huber, use threats and intimidation. Huber could have ended this a year ago but said you have to rejoin Komski under his rules and be a grange and that’s your only option.”

What they want is the land, insisted DuBois. The national organization is hurting for money and members and their legal fees are going up. “They were down to 62,000 members in 2014 in 36 states.” he said. “Three years ago they spent $300,000 for their yearly convention, then two years ago spent $500,000 for a convention for about 100 people. They are living in a bubble but forget where the money is coming from. They have since done away with all the checks and balances if a grange is suspended. They just do it for ‘the good of the order’ and take people’s property away.”

Out in the cold

Probably one of the strangest examples of what DuBois was talking about happened at the Marshall Grange – now Marshall Guild – last year.

“We were closely watching what was happening at the state level,” said Phyllis Polito, who is a member of the organization.

Changes to the state bylaws gave Komski their building, although at the time they had the sole title to it. “That was all new language,” she said, adding that the reaction to the changes was, “this is crazy.”

“In January 2016 we notified all the members we were going to discuss which group we were going to join. Without our knowledge, Komski found out about the meeting and showed up for it. Komski was very emotional. He threatened us. He said he could come in and lock our hall. But we voted to stay with McFarland. Then on Feb. 10, Linda Chernoff, who was our vice president at the time, had a letter from Komski suspending us and saying she was not going to allow us to hold a meeting. Members rejected the letter and the group decided to hold a meeting anyway. Linda left the meeting with her husband and a few others. After the meeting, we discussed the letter and concluded it didn’t apply to us. The next day, Feb. 9, Linda changed the locks on the hall and locked us out. She said the State Grange requested she change the locks to send the message that they meant business regarding ownership of the hall and that it remain in the hands of the fraternal grange members. Komski also made Chernoff acting president.

Polito said they contacted a lawyer who specializes in corporate law as Marshall, like most, if not all, of the granges-guilds are incorporated. “He told us she can’t do that. California corporate law does not allow that. So we went back a couple days later on Feb. 12 and changed the locks again. Linda called the Sheriff and blocked the driveway with her car and said no one was leaving the property, even the locksmith. A deputy showed up and he told her to move her car so the locksmith could leave. So the deputy left and we sat down and met with Linda and her husband in the hall.”

Polito said they continued to allow her and others access to the building while this played out in court as others rent the hall and they didn’t want to disrupt their activities. “We wanted everyone to have access to the hall. We were friends. We had dinner at each other’s homes. We thought, let’s continue our good work and let the courts figure it out. But on Feb. 18, Linda changed the locks again and installed a burglar alarm. At the same time our bank account was frozen and it’s still frozen until we get a court order. So every month we held meetings in the parking lot in the cold and the rain. Since then we have not had the use of the building. Linda claims Komski told her to do this.”

Polito claimed this was followed by people being threatened with some leaving the group because they were afraid of Komski. “There were police reports on people. I was secretary of the guild and was called by Komski and told to not represent myself anymore as secretary of the Marshall Grange because ‘he would hate to see harm come to my family,’” she said. “That’s just one example. He also said that to my husband. Another lady in her 80’s is very active as a real estate agent. Komski threatened to see that her real estate license was revoked if she didn’t cooperate with him. The name grange was pulled off the building. He told her, since you defaced my property I’m going to get your license revoked. He actually had local people boobytrap the building with a trip wire.

“There used to be an appeal process in place but that’s gone,” she said. “It’s all down to what a single person decides. Down to one person rule. So the State Grange can revoke a charter. For the good of the order they can take anyone’s property away from them. The money then goes to the national organization. They can take your property for any reason. If you don’t crack a bible at the beginning of the meeting or don’t have the right number of officers.”

DuBois added that the only reason Komski was able to do what he did to Marshall was because two members of that grange decided to go against the wishes of the members and flip it to Komski. “Some granges voted to go with him and some didn’t. This is the only case where a takeover happened and that’s because of those two members. This is the only grange where the members were locked out. A Federal court said we don’t have to join Komski. Our appeal will go to a panel and they will decide if it goes to trial or not and that could be another 2-3 years.

“It didn’t happen to our grange because our members didn’t turn on us,” said DuBois. “Their decision was not only no, it was hell no.

“We all said we’re happy to let the court decide but you’ve got these threatening letters and takeovers. He knows if you voluntarily flip over, he’s won. He can’t take the property any other way. He’s a carpetbagger in the truest sense of the word. It’s very sad. The average age of a granger is 65 to 75. it’s a predator’s paradise. But people just want to be left alone.”

In the meantime, DuBois said the guilds are trying to recruit younger members while allowing each to specialize in different areas whether it’s music or sustainable agriculture. “It depends on what the community is interested in,” he said. “The old rituals are of less interest to new people. Basically this is an inflection point for the National Grange. They have shown us how to get free of them. It’s complex and emotional and very personal.”

(As a side note, Chernoff was contacted for a comment but declined. Komski and McFarland were also asked for interviews but chose to let their lawyers respond instead.)

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