Mary Jane Butters

Mary Jane Butters is an organic farmer in the Palouse. She runs a Bed & Breakfast and publishes a magazine on her farm. She also writes books.

Mary Jane ButtersHow did you wind up here in the Palouse and what are you doing now?
I bought my farm at the end of a dirt road and found my five acres of paradise. Forty-seven thousand dollars, an old relic of a house. Two bachelor brothers were born and died here. I raised my kids without indoor plumbing, and I’ve tried to make a living off of my piece of land. I’ve re-invented myself many times. It started out going to the farmers market. These days I have a bed and breakfast, a wall tent bed and breakfast I run. I produce magazines about issues surrounding farming.

It was natural that I would become an organic farmer. When I was a young girl, I wanted to grow up to be a farmer but my family subscribed to two magazines: Reader’s Digest and Organic Gardening because they were small then. They could fit on the back of the toilet. We grew all of our own food on our little city lot. We were on the outskirts of a town in Utah so my father grafted trees. We had every kind of fruit, raised ducks, chickens and and we took great pride in canning 800 jars of food every year. So my parents primed me for this.

Could you list everything you're doing?
I’m not very good at sitting on my hands. And fortunately I have my children and their spouses here working the farm with me, which helps on the manual labor side of things. It’s all by accident, too, and my husband can tell you that.

When I started out, I created a line of organic backpacking foods, instant kinds of foods and falafel also, because I was trying to create a market for our garbanzo bean farmers here on the Palouse. So that business was humming along, and we were producing the food here at the farm, and I had a house fire, and it burned the facility where I was producing food.

We’re not interested in commodity agriculture. We’re interested in feeding our friends and our neighbors and our families.

Eventually I wanted to create a mail order catalogue. Well, it got out of control, and it became a magazine and it was discovered by magazine distributors around the country. I didn’t dream of that, but they sent it into distribution into Barnes & Noble and Wal-marts across the country and grocery stores, and I started telling more and more stories.

I never thought to be a writer. I have probably written my mother a few letters in my lifetime. Never had the urge to write poetry or tell stories on paper. So my magazine was discovered by the publishing world, the literary agent in New York, and he was after me for about eight months to write a book. I said, why would I write a book? I’m just trying to sell food.

When the recession hit and my sales of my backpacking line plummeted, I called him. I said, how do you write a book? I’ll write it. So I ended up writing the book here and producing it here with a girlfriend, taking the photographs myself, buying a digital camera, getting some pretty sophisticated computer equipment. That’s something I want to help farmers with – to tell their story. Brochures, magazines. I think it’s real important for people to connect a face to food and understand who is feeding them. That’s important. I think we’ll value food more if we know who is feeding us.

Mary Jane Butters' farm

So I wrote a book and it has done very well. They’ve sold out the first edition of it and I’m producing more books. I run a bed and breakfast which was kind of an accident. I lived in a wall tent when I worked for the Forest Service. In fact, I lived in a wall tent in the winter. Once you get five feet of snow up the sides, it’s a cozy little igloo, and as long as you have plenty of firewood, you’re fine. So I knew that some media people were coming. House and Garden and different people and I thought, well, if they’re going to spend their money in town at a hotel, they might as well give me that money. So I put up some wall tents, and they, of course, were a huge hit. I dolled them up on the inside. So now I have five of those, and we’re booked solid.

I produce a lot of local produce. Eventually I would love to phase out my food business where I ship food around the country; but I have what is called a "country club," an exclusive country club. People pay $200.00 for the season, and they get a key to the farm, a bumper sticker that tells us we know who they are and they can come from dawn to dusk, and then they pick. The entire farm is you-pick. And they weigh all their produce and leave a check. It’s on the honor system. That’s my idea of a you-pick farm.

I also have what is called pay dirt farm school. I’ve had that for 12 years. It started out with a young woman who called me and asked of she could shadow me at the farm and learn what I know. I’ve turned that into an official non-profit organization, and we bring people here and teach them how to eat organic food, how to grow organic food, how to build a fence. My style of farm is diversified in the old style way. You need to know how to build a house, how to sink a fence post hole, you need to know how to milk a cow, you need to know how to market yourself. That’s important these days. Something value-added that you put to your crop that feeds people more than just food, and in my case I like to feed people hope.

So, serendipity has played a big part?
Serendipity is a good friend of mine. I’m the kind of person that I’m hard working, but I also take opportunities when they arise. And I’m a risk taker. I’ve had credit card debt getting here. My husband is a very patient man. And I’ve had great kids who have helped me.

You have to be a risk taker to see those things that you are compelled to do. I see that women are more apt to do those, and I don’t know if it’s because we’re more disenfranchised. We’ve never really participated in agriculture, we haven’t owned land. Farming in this country in the last twenty-five years has declined by 14%, but women-owned farms have increased by 86%.

So, we’re taking up our weapons of mass creation. And we’re not interested in commodity agriculture. We’re interested in feeding our friends and our neighbors and our families, and we have created an amazing array of value-added businesses.

Doing wheat and peas forever isn’t going to sustain the Palouse.

There’s one woman, for example, on the Palouse who has taken her attic and turned it into a business. Instead of the children going with their parents to Mcdonalds for a birthday party, they come to her farm and they have a tea party, and then they go into the attic and they try on all these costumes and hats, and she takes photographs of them and charges $75.00. So those are the kinds of rural businesses, value-added businesses that really we are seeing an explosion of.

You really are an inspiration to young women, I'm told.
I do want to be an inspiration to young women; and we have had 12 year old girls here who want to grow up to be farm girls, and one woman in particular got obsessed with how to plant potatoes. She wants to grow up to be a potato farmer, an organic potato farmer. So I do think that there is a farm girl revolution in the making. We were featured in 1995 in National Geographic magazine in a story called “A Farming Revolution,” my husband and I. And it’s turned into a farm girl revolution.

Now my husband is very supportive of what I do. He would have never started this business. He would have never produced a magazine called Mary Jane’s Farm. So I think it’s fun for us to collaborate with men. They can be great work horses, but we’re the more creative risk takers. I really see that.

How do you define "farm girl"?
My definition of farm girl is sort of a spin on the 4-H: hearth, home, handiwork and hogs. But it’s this heart-felt thing. It’s a condition of the heart. It’s hand work. It’s creating community, knowing your neighbor. Those domestic kinds of things that we almost let go extinct for a while.

It’s a way in which we nurture our children and our communities. And it has to do with food. Food is the most important thing absolutely. And we’ve de-valued it. So I think these farm girl enterprises are real important to give a face to food, and to expose in your community the support and the loyalty that farmers need to continue to feed people.

What can you offer the more traditional farmer?
The industrial farmer got on a treadmill forty or fifty years ago, a chemical treadmill, and it’s a lot of stress for them. They have to have more and more acreage. It’s just like our dairies. More and more cows. Where does it end? Five thousand, six thousand acres in order to make a profit, and they don’t get to decide what their price is, which is bizarre, actually.

So there is a lot of stress which is has opened the door for value-added products. People could try something different with what it is they grow. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I think there will be more and more of these value-added businesses, but we work very well with the industrial farmers, actually.

I think it’s wonderful the way I have been embraced as an organic farmer, but it’s just another part of agriculture and we’re all in it together. We’re all going to solve these problems and we all know there are problems. And we all know that Americans have been taught that they have a God-given right to cheap food, and we know that’s been disastrous to organic farmers, it’s been disastrous to chemical farmers. And so we have a lot of education to do. So I think we’re collaborating in that sense.

But I could hear someone saying, even you couldn't make a go of it, without the book deal.
I was offered $1.35 million dollars for two books. The first installment was $400,000.00 right before Christmas. I had no tax deductions; half of it went to the IRS. I spent the rest of it producing my book. Recently what is sustaining us are sales of my food. Absolutely. That is paying my bills. In my last magazine I created something called a budget mix, and I turned my last magazine into a special issue, so it sort of morphed into a cook book, and we created all the recipes here. Like a flour recipe that I invented that makes everything from crepes to one-skillet meals to biscuits to cakes, and all the recipes that go along with that; and we’re selling thousands of pounds of my budget mix; and my husband has never been more tired or more happy. He’s in charge of shipping. But we really are seeing ten thousand dollar days on the sales of my food. And the important thing about this budget mix is it doesn’t use hard red wheat, which isn’t really grown on the Palouse. It uses south white wheat. It isn’t a yeasted bread, it’s a baking powder bread. So I am creating a market for what is grown right out my door because we tried to grow organic soft white wheat and the second year we grew it, I had to sell it as non-organic wheat along with everybody else because I couldn’t get it processed and ground into flour.

So I really want to say to the world, I’m not making money off of the books. What the books and the magazines have done is tell my story and put a face to the food that I produce, and we’re making our money off of the food.

You seem to see story telling as an important part of farming.
Sure. Farmers always want to chow on the fence and tell a story or two. Have you ever been around a group of men talking about hunting? Well, you get women together, rural women, and we talk about our handwork, we talk about our children, a good measure of gossip. We love a little bit of gossip.

So what is it that the Mary Jane story is projecting to the world?
I think most people have farm fantasies at some point in their lives. What I hope to accomplish is to give them not just romance and fantasy, but a way to actually leave what they are doing or to incorporate. Take a city lot and turn it into a garden. The organization I started in Moscow, the Palouse Clearwater Environmental Institute, has a community garden, and I was there this weekend. All the plots every year are rented. I think there are 46 of them and there was a fellow there in the middle of the day on a Sunday. He had his arm up on a shovel and he was drinking a beer. He had a cooler full of beer and he was working on his little plot. I think they’re having gardening Olympics there. You can tell everybody is trying to outdo each other. Beautiful gardens, and a lot of wonderful food is being grown. It’s hobby food, but it just satiates that need to grow. So I think the farm girl idea is, I’m trying to turn it into something part playful, a little bit of Dolly Parton, a little bit of Willie Nelson. I’m a farm advocate.

What are the challenges facing the Palouse over the next ten years?
The Palouse needs to incorporate some smart growth. The Palouse is an amazing place to live, to own land. The soil is black. Even after it rains, you can pick it up and let it go, and it runs through your hands. It has just the right amount of clay and sand and loam and fertility. It’s black and rich in nitrogen. I think our concern is soil erosion. Holding the soil. We see clay knobs now where we’ve farmed with big machinery for too many years.

It’s also bringing life back to the soil. You want to get out there and see earth worms again, which means you are bringing fertility back to the soil. The Palouse, I think, needs to sell itself as a nerve center of vanguard farming, which is what I’m doing here or Jacie Jenson is doing. We want to say, we have an amazing gift, and we’re going to vehemently protect it, and we’re going to make our money however we can dream it up, whether it’s tourists, whether it’s selling nearly extinct plants. Doing wheat and peas forever isn’t going to sustain the Palouse.

Your crew really didn't say anything bad about you! They think you're a dynamo.
I just have that kind of personality. I don’t take no for an answer very easily; and you just want the world to be a better place. You go to bed exhausted, and you wake up the next morning, and you’ve got your energies back, and your dreams.

I think they know in my writings and my magazine and my book, I really don’t point the finger. I think the problems we’re up against are ominous. I don’t know really who is at fault. I just see what it is we can do to try to solve some of the problems. My philosophy is, it’s like if a nuclear bomb went off, you want to be able to turn to your children and say, I did everything I could.

And so you just work away every day, and it’s very satisfying, and it’s a wonderful way to create community, put your shoulder to the wheel, lock elbows with someone and work on a project. It’s why we’re here.

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