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Around The Grange
New York State Grange cultivates a new generation

By Michelle Breidenbach, The Post Standard via Syracuse.com (9/4/11)

  SEPTEMBER 13, 2011 --

The 7,000 members of the New York State Grange would fill only one-fifth of Chevy Court, but the New York State Fair still dedicates a full day to the 138-year-old fraternal Order of Patrons of Husbandry.

Saturday, September 3rd was officially Grange Day at the state fair.

The Grange has its roots in agriculture, and the organization grew up with the fair. But the Grange Building is one of the few places dedicated to farming that does not smell like an animal.

Instead, visitors can get a $5 hair cut, listen to bluegrass music or get an education in state and federal legislation on issues such as bullying in schools.

That’s good for State Grange President Stephen Coye, because he is allergic to the dust and animal hair that swirls around in a barn. Coye grew up on a farm in Chenango County, but spent his career in the state Capitol as the supervisor of the Senate document office.

Contrary to popular perception, less than 5 percent of today’s New York State Grange members are farmers.

A sign inside the Grange Building invites teachers, firefighters and professionals in any field to join.

Roger Halbert, of Gilbertsville, is legislative director for the Grange. He is a nursing home administrator.

“As the number of people who are actively involved in agriculture has gone down in the last 40 to 50 years, the Grange has expanded its interest to other rural issues — health care, education, state issues, taxation, those kinds of things that affect families who desire to live in rural areas,” he said.

Halbert belongs to the Otsego County Grange, which is the largest of New York’s 240 local chapters. Of 130 members, they can expect about 40 or 50 to show up at monthly meetings. Only two are farmers.

Instead, they are known for their community service projects, Halloween parties, social trips to places such as West Point and their four-part choir.

The calendar of events across the state includes contests for art, photography, quilting and baking chocolate cakes. There are tournaments for golf, bowling and dartball.

The organization also spends much of its time developing positions on bills before the state and federal governments.

The Grange has a long history of influencing legislation. It started after the Civil War as a place for farmers to band together to fight for rural issues. The group opposed railroad monopolies. Granger Laws regulated grain elevator and railroad freight rates.

In 1896, the Grange advocated for rural free mail delivery and eight years later, the Post Office started rural delivery.

The organization still has opinions about farming and rural post office service.

But today’s Grange speaks out on a surprising variety of other issues.

An exhibit inside the state fair’s Grange Building says the group supports English as the official language of the United States. The group opposes the issuance of drivers’ licenses to noncitizens. The group is opposed to government financing for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest or endangered health of the mother.

Members oppose the placement of signs at the sites of drunken driving fatalities. Members oppose casino gambling. They urge the state to allow elephant rides at fairs and carnivals.

A 2009 initiative encourages the New York State Fair to keep square dancing as an activity, to publicize when and where it can be done and to provide ample floor space to dance safely.

Coye said he could not speak to all of those issues. The Grange chooses its legislative activities from the bottom up. Members who attend local chapter meetings deliberate. Everyone age 14 and older votes. Then, the issues are sent through a county group and to the state for action.

This fall, members will have to decide where the group stands on hydrofracking, he said.

He said the Grange membership has hit its bottom and is on the rise. There are new chapters forming all over the country and a new one is about to start in Niagara County.

“We are on the verge of a joining generation again,” he said.

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