Grange membership denials widen political divide

The majority of 60 applicants who applied for membership were rejected for their signing of a petition.

The majority of applicants who recently applied to a fraternal community organization have been denied membership, apparently on the grounds that they signed a petition.

At least 60 South Whidbey community members — including business owners, farmers and Whidbey Island Fair vegetable judges — applied to join the Deer Lagoon Grange in the wake of a local controversy involving members of Washington Three Percent who are also current members of Whidbey’s grange.

A steering committee, formerly known by the name “Reclaim the Grange,” was created to oppose the presence of Washington Three Percent, which community members expressed concerns about for the group’s purported extremist views, and to encourage new people with an interest in agricultural activities to join the Deer Lagoon Grange.

The movement was also accompanied by a petition, which called for a meeting environment free from the threat of an armed militia and people who don’t abide by masking and social distancing protocols in place against COVID-19.

Last month, current members of Deer Lagoon Grange voted whether or not to accept the new crop of applicants, some of whom applied as long ago as January and many of whom had signed the petition.

The decision, it appears for most, was a swift rejection.

Rhonda Salerno, a Langley farm owner, said she was shocked to receive the letter from the Washington State Grange April 9.

“I’ve never been rejected from something,” she said. “It was quite daunting to get a letter of rejection like that in a group that I would really be a perfect candidate for, because I’m a farmer.”

The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was founded in 1867, shortly after the Civil War, as a way to unify farmers across the nation.

“After the Civil War, the Grange was actually made up to bring people of all kinds together. And that’s what people are asking for here,” she said, indicating the petition many signed that calls for inclusivity in the Grange.

Three reasons for rejection are listed in the letter: “failure to secure a current Grange member to recommend you for membership, a lack of transparency in not using your legal name and or/address and your signature on a petition, which members may believe wrongs others in the Grange, something that goes against the obligation of membership.”

Community members who received the rejection have been baffled by the first two reasons.

Langley resident Dean Enell said he was not aware that a current member is needed to endorse potential candidates for membership.

Although he is not a farmer, Enell has several acres of trees and possesses an interest in the activities the Deer Lagoon Grange has focused on in the past.

“It seems to me we’re missing a wonderful opportunity to bring people together within this community to promote things that would be in our common interest, which in this case would be agriculture,” Enell said.

Pam Schell, one of the owners of the Inn at Langley, agreed. She, too, was also barred from joining the Deer Lagoon Grange.

“A grange to me is an opportunity to have a lot of events that promote farming and our local rural community,” she said.

Gary Ingram, the president of South Whidbey Tilth, has worked alongside Deer Lagoon Grange Master Chuck Prochaska at the Whidbey Island Fair as a fellow vegetable judge for years.

Receiving a rejection letter might complicate this relationship.

“We thought it would be a good idea to bring Tilth people into the Grange,” Ingram said.

As Enell also suggested, the rejection has only widened the political divide in the South Whidbey community.

“I’m left-wing, I’m very progressive, but I’m not a terrorist,” Ingram said.

Salerno, Enell, Schell and Ingram all signed the Reclaim the Grange petition.

Neither Prochaska nor Washington State Grange President Tom Gwin returned a request for comment by press time about the most recent decision regarding Deer Lagoon Grange membership.

In previous interviews, Prochaska has been vocal about his distrust of Reclaim the Grange.

Prochaska has criticized the petition for its denunciation of current Deer Lagoon Grange members who also belong to Washington Three Percent.

“We’re not going to accept people who are trying to destroy us,” he had said.

Gwin, in a past interview, said private fraternal organizations such as the Grange don’t operate with petitions.

“If they’re joining the Grange for political reasons, really they’re joining the Grange for the wrong reason,” he had said.

At the request of trademark attorneys from the National Grange, “Reclaim the Grange” has changed its website name to “Solidarity over Supremacy.”

The new website URL is soswhidbey.org.

Larry Behrendt, who is part of the steering committee, said the original name simply wasn’t worth fighting for.

“Our group has an intentionally broader focus than just this action around the Grange,” he said, adding that a name change was going to happen anyway.

“We considered a number of different names,” he said. “We wanted a name that reflected our broader concern for community well-being, inclusion, equity and safety.”

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