Growing the Grange: oldest US ag group needs to attract new generation

1
517
people play board games together
People gather at Fairview Grange, in Ohioville, Pennsylvania, for a community game night. (Submitted photo)

Do you get mail delivered to your rural home? You can thank the Grange for that.

The Grange was there to support rural electrification efforts, the Farm Credit Act, vocational agriculture education and the formation of extension services. Today, the national and state Granges continue to fight for rural broadband and healthcare access.

This is, believe it or not, the same organization that’s holding pancake breakfasts at local Grange halls in your hometown or doing service work in the community. It’s also the same group that paid off the final $300,000 of the mortgage of its national headquarters with cookbook sales.

There’s a lot you probably don’t know about the Grange.

“I refer to us as the best kept secret out there,” said Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania State Grange.

The challenge for the group now is to get the secret out to younger generations. The Grange is facing the same declining membership many other fraternal organizations have seen in recent years.

“I think there’s definitely still a place for the Grange,” said Betsy Huber, National Grange president. “We’re still needed and still fill a vital role in all these communities.”

Long history

The National Grange was founded in December 1867, as a way to bring farmers together to share ideas and advocate for them on a national level. It’s the oldest agricultural organization in the country, by several decades.

It was called the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, inspired by other fraternal orders of the day. Local chapters were called Granges. Membership was limited only to farmers. Meetings were full of rituals and required a password to get in.

old timey grange meeting
A Grange meeting in schoolhouse, January 1940, Fairfax County, Virginia. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

As farms consolidated through the ’60s and ’70s, the Grange needed to change, too. It opened its membership to anyone and put a bigger emphasis on community service at the local level.

The Pennsylvania State Grange was founded in 1873. The organization found a home in Ohio around that time, as well. The high water mark for the Grange in Pennsylvania came nearly a century ago. In 1922, there were about 96,000 members in 960 active Grange chapters. Today, there are about 6,000 members in nearly 190 Granges statewide in Pennsylvania. Ohio has 3,000 Grange members.

Campbell said before the pandemic hit, membership numbers in the state were seeing a turnaround. Not being able to meet in person slowed the progress they’d been making, but it’s picking back up.

“Just two weeks ago, the secretary in the office mailed out 20 new member packets to people throughout (Pennsylvania),” Campbell said. “I was thrilled to see that.”

Members of his home Grange met outside during the summer months. It was tough to make the transition to virtual meetings, as other groups did. Grange meetings still involve a lot of ritual, and socializing before and after meetings is a big draw for many members.

Sue Roy, Ohio State Grange president, said many of the older members were not receptive to the idea of meeting online. They also lost several of their elderly members to COVID-19.

“We are all about potlucks and getting together,” she said. “That’s just not been possible.”

Getting started

Ask a Granger how they got involved with the group, and many will tell you they were born into it. That’s what Campbell and Huber said. The Grange is one of few organizations to accept members as young as 5. That’s when children can join the Junior Grange.

“But a lot of us have been in and around it from when we were in diapers,” Campbell said. “We’ve been Grangers all our lives. It’s nothing to go to a Grange meeting with a newborn.”

Juniors can become full members of the Grange when they are 14.

“That’s pretty special too,” Huber said. “That teenagers can have an equal say in things as their parents and grandparents in the same organization.”

Huber said they’ve been working at the national level to figure out how to appeal to young generations. Leadership development is a big focus in their youth programs, which is for members ages 14-35. Huber sees the Grange as a natural next step for young adults who age out of 4-H or FFA chapters.

“We’re stressing that you can continue your growth and personal development in the Grange,” she said.

Growing up

Fairview Grange, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania resurrected its Junior Grange after several years with no children involved. When Beth Parrish’s daughter joined, she said there were about a dozen children actively involved in the group, although many were children of adult Grange members.

Membership seemed to ebb and flow as children would age out. Parrish took over the Junior Grange a few years ago and made a concerted effort to get it going again.

She set up an informational table at an open house at a local elementary school. She hosted a community game night. Some families came and stuck around. Then those children invited their friends. She reached out to families who have children in cyber school or who are homeschooling.

children sitting side-by-side at a table making bird feeders
Children make bird feeders during a meeting of the Fairview Junior Grange, in Ohioville, Pennsylvania. (Submitted photo)

There were about a dozen children at the last meeting. She keeps their monthly meetings light and fun, although she sneaks in information on Grange history, rituals and traditions. They play games. Parents bring in food or host programs.

“Grange is a place you can come and be yourself, be on even ground with everyone and make lifelong friendships,” Parrish said. That’s what she emphasizes to new families.

You don’t have to be wealthy enough to own animals. You don’t have to be good at a sport. You don’t have to jump through a lot of red tape or have perfect meeting attendance.

“It’s a safe place to go,” Parrish said. “It’s family friendly.”

Getting it done

That openness and flexibility extends to the adult members too. The state and national Granges have policy points and issues they are working for at a larger scale. At the local chapter level, it’s up to each Grange to decide what it needs to do for its community.

“Whether you’re a Grange member or not, we’re working for you everyday in Harrisburg and Washington,” Campbell said. “But we’d like you to be a member of the Grange so you can also make a difference in your local community… I can’t tell you from here to tell you what you need to do in your community, but you can do that.”

Roy said this aspect of the Grange was visible in 2020 when the Ohio State Grange waived membership dues amidst the pandemic. In lieu of paying dues, Granges were asked to do some extra work in the community and write in to the state Grange to let them know what they did.

Granges donated to local food pantries, paid hospital bills after a community member had an accident, bought presents for families at Christmas, Roy said. One group bought 10 iPads for a local nursing home so residents could video chat with their families when visitation was limited.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!

Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

SHARE
Previous articleAltEn: The mess gets even messier
Next articleAngus Foundation Scholarship applications now open
Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

1 COMMENT

  1. I did not know that Grange was still so active!
    Thank you for your informative article. My father was a life-long member of Grange as was his entire family in NE Ohio.
    I would have liked to have been a Grange member when in college after 10 years in 4-H but did not know about it.
    The Grange buildings in the farming community where I grew up are now demolished or sold off.
    I hope to see a revival of membership to help the renewal of rural America as more “baby boomers” from the city buy homes in rural areas. God Bless.

LEAVE A REPLY

We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.