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Sonoma Valley Grange is growing

MICHAEL ACKER is the president of the Sonoma Valley Grange and designed the mural on the front of the building. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

MICHAEL ACKER is the president of the Sonoma Valley Grange and designed the mural on the front of the building. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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The Sonoma Valley Grange is the go-to place for connecting with the agricultural community and learning about healthy food and farming. The host of pancake breakfasts and seasonal dinners and home to flea markets and cookie exchanges, it is a long-time organization that is finding a new direction in a community concerned with sustainability and farm-to-table food sources.

“Sonoma is not all just grapes,” said Grange President Michael Acker, explaining that there is more small farming going on in the Valley than the acres of vineyards would lead one to believe. He said the Grange serves as a community center and is “a neighborhood service focused on food and agriculture.” Acker, an artist, designed the mural that was painted on the exterior of the building in 2010, making it an eye-catching sight on Highway 12.

The national Grange was founded just after the Civil War to promote the economic well being of the agricultural community, and the movement quickly spread with local Granges opening across the country. The local Grange started in Sonoma in 1924, and its headquarters building in The Springs was purchased from the Rosenthal Resort that year.

Besides Grange events, the building is available to rent and is used several times a month for anniversaries, quinceaneras, wedding receptions and meetings. There is currently a fundraising campaign underway to renovate the aging facility. “The building is central to everything we do,” Acker said “and maintaining it is our primary responsibility.”

The plumbing and wiring and restrooms need to be brought up to code, a new roof and flooring will be installed, and the kitchen will be completely rebuilt, with new appliances, cooking utensils and tables and chairs. The budget is $250,000, and a $100,00 donation has already been made by Mac and Leslie MacQuown, owners of Stone Edge Farm, to go toward the kitchen remodeling. Stone Edge is an organic winery and also provides organically grown vegetables to local restaurants.

The new kitchen will be brought up to commercial standards and will be available for rent. This will support farmers who want to cook food and then sell it. “A member said ‘I wish I could make jam here and sell it,’” Acker said, “And a light bulb went on.”

He said they hope to raise the rest of the funds and begin construction within a year.

Jim Callahan, current vice president, is leading the fundraising efforts and has a heartfelt commitment to the Grange. He became involved seven or eight years ago, serving as president and leading the way to bring the Grange into modern times. Although the Grange has always been active, it had been in steady decline and finally reached a point where there were just a few members left. “There were some folks who had been there forever that kept the fires burning,” he said, but added that in recent years “the median age has dropped considerably.” There are now more than 100 members, and also many people who attend Grange events who are not members.

Callahan spent his formative years in Montana, where his family was a member of the Grange. “When a hunter got lost in the hills or there was a fire, the Grange was where the community would gather to help,” he said, adding it was also where weddings took place and where he performed in the Thanksgiving pageant as a boy.

“The community needs a communal space and the Grange can be that,” he said. “We can begin to lose an essential element of human connectedness, and the Grange is a natural vehicle for bringing people together.”

Callahan is a professional sculptor who is often motivated by nature, creating life-like bronzes of ravens, egrets, elk, coyotes and horses. He is supportive of young farmers and of eating locally. “It is socially worthwhile to be a farmer nowadays,” he said. “We are a community of people who like to eat and cook. The whole farm-to-table movement is a natural fit for the Grange.” Callahan went on to quote famed writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry who said, “Eating is an agricultural act.”

With the building renovation pending and a new trend toward farming and community-supported agriculture, the Grange will be on a continued upswing, and there are bright plans for its future. Callahan noted, “With the solstice approaching, it is only natural to be local and visible.”

And to plan for spring, and many springs afterward.