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Seeds are sown for revival of a fading farmers’ group

Volunteers work to bring back Bradford Grange

Marlene Stasinos, a farmer in Haverhill, said the Grange plays an important role in bringing families and the farming community together. Marlene Stasinos, a farmer in Haverhill, said the Grange plays an important role in bringing families and the farming community together. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2011
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As Haverhill health officials weigh the fate of the city’s pig farms, a small band of volunteers is working fervently to support farmland preservation by reorganizing the Bradford Grange, which disappeared from the local landscape six years ago.

The movement has attracted nearly a dozen people, just shy of the number needed to reorganize the local unit of the decades-old farmers’ group. Haverhill, a city best known for its shoe industry, was once also a regional center for the cattle market.

Today, the city is home to two wineries and 35 farms, including the farm owned by Marlene and Chris Stasinos, who in October were denied permission to keep eight grain-fed pigs on their 10-acre property. Neighbors had claimed foul odors were emanating from the farm, causing a public nuisance, and demanded health officials banish pig farms from the city.

As the city has evolved, so too has the Grange. Formed during the post-Civil War economic depression to support struggling farmers, today’s Grange is a family-focused organization that emphasizes community service projects and local activism.

“Our roots are in agriculture, and that’s something we are very proud of. But the Grange also teaches leadership, teamwork, and communication,’’ said Matthew Johnson, 42, who is spearheading the effort to revive the Bradford Grange. “The organization continues to evolve, with each Grange deciding for itself how best to serve the local community and meet people’s needs.’’

Johnson, who was recently elected master, or head, of the Massachusetts State Grange, said the organization is enjoying a resurgence in interest as more residents join the “buy local’’ movement and seek ways to support the region’s growers. He noted that the Grange is one of the few organizations open to anyone, from young children to retirees.

To date, 11 people have joined together to reorganize the Bradford Grange, including a Haverhill farmer and the head of the North Andover Cultural Council. To revive the local unit, 13 individuals must commit to the chapter. Johnson is hopeful he’ll get a few new recruits at the group’s next organizational meeting, which is scheduled for tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the Milhendler Room at the Haverhill Public Library, 99 Main St.

“In the early days, the Grange was a community meeting place; it was the way a lot of farmers met their wives,’’ said Marlene Stasinos, who with her husband now raises chickens and operates two local farm stands, one in the Bradford neighborhood, the other in Peabody, while they appeal the Board of Health’s decision regarding their pigs.

“The farmers were so busy tending to their land that they didn’t have an opportunity to really go out and meet people,’’ she said. “The Grange brought the families, and the farming community, together. That’s what we want to do.’’

The Grange, formally known as the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, was conceived by Oliver H. Kelley, who worked for the US Department of Agriculture in the 1860s, as a means of educating farmers about sound agricultural practices.

In its early years, the Grange was devoted to educational events and social gatherings. The fraternal order became a political force in the 1870s, but its advocacy efforts were soon eclipsed by other groups and the organization returned to its original mission. Today, the Grange has units in 2,100 communities in 38 states, according to National Grange officials.

At its peak in the late 1950s, the group attracted 51,000 members in Massachusetts. But over the years, as farmland succumbed to the cultivation of housing developments, membership in the Grange began to wane. In the last six years, 35 Massachusetts Grange units have closed, including chapters in Byfield and Topsfield. Despite those bleak statistics, Grange officials believe they are starting to sow the seeds of change.

“We’re seeing people leave the corporate world to return to agriculture and develop a niche market,’’ said Edward Luttrell, master of the National Grange. “More and more people are realizing that farming is not an impersonal industry - farmers go out and get their hands dirty and care for their animals - and they, too, want to reconnect with the land and support local growers.’’

Luttrell noted that the organization has been enjoying a rebirth in recent years, since reorganizing at the national level. New Granges have started in Arkansas, California, and Nevada, and existing ones - including the West Newbury and East Freetown units - are reporting that their memberships are growing again.

“Our organization has taken a very hard look at itself in the past decade,’’ said Luttrell. “We realize that for those organizations that don’t continually adapt to the world around them, there is only one path for them: They go away.’’

To avoid a similar fate, the Grange has embraced the use of social media, with a presence on both Facebook and Twitter, and it encourages nonfarming families to join in its community service mission. Granges in Beverly, Dracut, Rowley, West Boxford, and West Newbury are actively seeking young members to ensure that their units survive.

Johnson, the second youngest state master in the 138-year history of the Massachusetts Grange, is quick to point out that many of the individuals who have attended the reorganizational meetings for the Bradford Grange are in their early 40s, far younger than the unit’s former members, who were in their mid-70s.

Their shared vision for the Bradford Grange includes partnerships with community organizations, the local farmers’ market, 4-H groups, and area growers. The group would like to connect local residents to area farmers, host community suppers, and spearhead the creation of an agricultural commission in Haverhill.

“I work in agriculture and want to see the old traditions - canning, sewing, farming - preserved,’’ said Deb Morse, 40, a Boxford native who runs a Westford horse farm and has joined the local effort to revive the Bradford Grange. “It’s hard to keep them alive with modern development.

“Ideally, I’d like to see the Grange help connect local products to the people who need them,’’ Morse said. “A lot of farmers don’t have the time, the resources, or the know-how to market themselves. We can get the word out.’’

Added Linda MacDonald, head of the North Andover Cultural Council: “The Grange brings families together in the purest of forms. Our biggest challenge is just getting people to join.’’

Johnson agreed. “That’s the hardest part. It’s hard to get people interested in something that doesn’t exist yet. Once we get our charter, we can start doing what we want to do.’’

Brenda J. Buote can be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.

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