A Spokane County woman has been elected as the president of the National Grange, the nation’s oldest agricultural and rural service organization.
Christine Hamp, who retired earlier this year from her position as division chief for Spokane County Fire District 9, is only the second woman to lead the national organization and the first Washingtonian to hold the title since Albert S. Goss, who served until his death in 1950. Hamp, the 24th president of the National Grange, has been elected to a two-year term; there are no term limits.
A member of the Tualco and Five Mile Prairie Granges, she has served as vice president of the National Grange since 2021. A fourth-generation member of the Grange who grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Monroe, Washington, Hamp has been involved in the Grange since she was 5 years old, initially as a junior granger, as full membership can’t be conferred until a person is 14.
There are about 2,000 local Granges in 41 states, as well as the national organization that Hamp was elected to lead by voting delegates from each of the state Granges. Since the early 1970s, Washington has had the largest Grange membership and number of local chapters of any state in the country, Hamp said in a Friday interview.
Washington’s outsized presence – with 9,205 members this year – in the national organization may be attributed to its relative political independence, Hamp said. Where residents of other states may turn to political parties to advocate for policy changes, the Grange’s status as an independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization may have filled that void in Washington, she said.
Founded in 1867, the Grange was formed in response to monopolistic corporations consolidating power in the Midwest in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though largely known for its advocacy on behalf of farmers, the organization supported the women’s suffrage movement, successfully spearheaded the advent of free delivery of mail to rural Americans and is more recently active in lobbying for rural broadband.
The relative decoupling of Washington’s elections from political parties, which Hamp credits for the state’s strong Grange membership, specifically the top-two primary system, is another product of the organization’s advocacy. In 2004, the Grange filed a state initiative to create the top-two primary system used in the state today, and previously joined legal efforts in support of the “blanket primary” system, which allowed residents to split their tickets across party lines in most primary elections.
“Our organization has never been a one-trick pony,” Hamp said. “It’s always had a broad range of legislative priorities. You can’t just say that it’s about getting the next farm bill passed, because there’s so much more we’re working on as well.”
Those legislative priorities aren’t set by the president of the national organization, Hamp said, but adopted at the national convention after being introduced by state chapters, which bring priorities brought forward by local chapters.
“Grange leadership starts at the grassroots,” Hamp said.
Despite the organization’s storied legacy, the Grange has grappled with an aging and shrinking membership like many other agricultural and fraternal organizations. Ensuring the organization stays relevant and attractive to a new generation is a key goal of Hamp.
“It’s a constant challenge with any organization, and maybe more so when you’re 157 years old, to find that path going forward,” Hamp said. “That’s what I’m 100% engaged in and ready for is taking this organization into tomorrow, making sure that we’re stronger tomorrow than we are today.”
The organization has seen some success on that front, Hamp noted, and 2023 is the second consecutive year with a net gain in membership nationwide. Today the Grange has more than 80,000 members.
“What we’ll be working on is finding those programs and projects that resonate with younger families,” Hamp said. “That’s what we’ve done with our Grange here that my husband and I belong to, is finding those events and those projects that resonate with younger folks and get them involved.”
The Grange has at times struggled to strike a balance between its current membership and those it seeks to attract. In 2013, National Public Radio reported that a new generation of farmers in Oregon concerned with the environment and frustrated by industrial farming created a coalition of “Green Granges,” and quoted then-President Ed Luttrell as saying these organizations sometimes came into conflict with the wider Grange community.
“We do have some of our Green Granges that want to be exclusive, not inclusive,” Luttrell told NPR at the time.
But the recent conflict has made the organization stronger, said Hamp, who believes that the Grange can still find common ground between its members’ varying priorities. Members wanting to push for change can do so starting with their local chapters, and if it gets adopted by the national convention it will have become palatable to the majority of members.
“Instead of just your idea and your thought, it’s now got the weight of this 157-year-old national organization, so when we bring it to Capitol Hill, it gets considered, people are willing to talk about it and realize that this is the view of a much wider swath of folks than just one person,” she said.
Hamp succeeds Betsy E. Huber, who in 2015 was the first woman elected to the office of National Grange President.