So, let's talk about MaryJane's Farm, shall we? I'm feeling conflicted, and I need some help sorting it out. Recently, a giant box full of MaryJane's Farm instant organic meals arrived on my doorstep, the result of a long-ago gift certificate I only recently cashed in.
In previous posts, Ethicureans have quipped that "friends don't let friends eat too much processed food," and that "crap is crap," even when organic. But I'll be honest: I am grateful for these meals. I am grateful that as winter arrives, as the local foods become less plentiful, as darkness arrives earlier and earlier, and as our afternoons become filled with gymnastics classes and swimming lessons and homework, my cabinets will have a safety-net of fast, simple organic meals. On the other hand, I look at these meals, and I feel a tiny bit...cheap.
Call it Ethicurean guilt if you will, but I need to talk this one through.
MaryJane Butters, the woman behind this food, is the original farm girl. Okay, maybe she's not the original farm girl, but she sure looks the part. She's an organic farmer who grew up canning garden-fresh food and wearing hand-sewn clothes. After stints as a single mother, carpenter, and wilderness ranger, MaryJane purchased a five-acre homestead in Idaho, sight unseen. Since then, she's been farming this land — and then 100 more adjacent acres, after she married a neighbor farmer — in high style. We're talking high style, friends. By which I mean oh-so-chic low-country style that looks effortless in Country Home magazine, and yet which somehow you cannot seem to create in your own home no matter how hard you try. We're talking style that's high enough to make her a brand— a brand that permeates her many products: her glossy magazine, her many books, her line of organic linens, her adorable calico aprons, her primitive-style inspirational wall plaques, her magazine-cover-worthy pillows, her scented candles, her dolls, her clothes-pin bags, her calendars...and so on (if there is such a thing as a Farmgirl Empire, it exists at the end of Wild Iris Lane in Moscow, Idaho). MaryJane is enough of a brand that The New Yorker said that "Butters is a farmer the way Martha Stewart is a housewife."
But don't dismiss her just yet. This chick is not simply some greenwashed company operating out of a Manhattan skyscraper. In so many ways, this pig-tailed, boot-wearin', milkmaid of a grandma seems as authentic as they come. She was an organic farmer long before she was an organic diva, and she took her million-dollar book deal only on the condition that she not have to leave her farm. Many of her products are part of Project F.A.R.M. (First-class American Rural Made), which is Butters's initiative to to contract with real rural artisans, like Miss Wilma Gilbert of rural Kentucky, to support rural communities. Eons wrote that
MaryJane — the space between the y and j vanished a while back — is the real deal, not a Janie-come-lately airy-fairie back-to-the-lander who decided on a recent whim to ride the crest of the “go green” movement sweeping America in the wake of contaminated food scares, global warming and spiraling energy costs....After decades of hardscrabble times, MaryJane is reaping the rewards of a life consistently lived in harmony with the landscape around her.
She's genuinely inspired many a person toward a simpler life. And if that doesn't give her farmgirl cred, check this out: Sustainable Northwest recently awarded her the Cecil D. Andrus Leadership Awards for Sustainability and Conservation, calling her a "pioneer of sustainability and conservation. In an interview with Organic.org, MaryJane said:
I think we need to take back our language. I want to call my organic carrots ‘carrots’ and let [other farmers] call theirs a chemical carrot. And they can list all of the ingredients that they used instead of me having to be certified. The burden is on us to prove something. Let them prove that they used only 30 chemicals instead of 50 to produce an apple.
Yes, MaryJane! Yes!
Elsewhere, she's said:
We’ve really devalued food in our minds and what ends up on our plate. We’ve devalued it and laced it with chemicals and the cheap food hasn’t worked out long-term. I think that I sell not just good wholesome food, but I also sell hope. People crave that.
Yes, MaryJane! I do crave hope! Yes! Yes! Yes!
MaryJane started her packaged food business as a way to build a market for a neighbor's hard-skinned garbanzo beans, which he'd been having trouble selling. And she still uses local ingredients, as well as ingredients from small farms around the nation (and yes, ingredients from a food distributor, too). She preserved a historic flour mill to help grind her food. She also runs a Pay Dirt Farm School for budding organic farmers and other interested parties. Really, this gal offers plenty to feel hopeful about.
But I keep getting stuck on that word, hope. Because, in the end, what arrived in my box was not hope. It was packaged, dried, powdered food, shipped from Idaho. It's true that her food has minimal ingredients, all of them recognizable. It is organic. It can be prepared and thrown at starving family members in a matter of minutes. Unlike most packaged food, this stuff doesn't gross me out. It's not hope, though. And for a woman who writes so eloquently about getting people in touch with real food, I can't help but wonder if this is what she had in mind.
Here's where I'm going to let you in on a secret. Here is the really fascinating thing about this woman who started as an organic farmer, and is now an organic mogul, but remains the organic farmer at heart. MaryJane herself has even admitted to wanting to phase out her food business that ships food around the country. It's possible that for MaryJane, too, this instant-food gig is one of the least satisfying parts of MaryJane's Farm. And this is where it hits me: her products — her Chillovers and bakeovers, her bean flakes and energy bars, her brownie mixes, dried couscous, her Curry in a Hurry and Outrageous Outback Oatmeal, as well as her books, her magazine, her calendars and candles, her dolls and DVDs, her Farmgirl chat rooms and Farmgirl Sisterhood club, her Farmgirl Chapters, her tufted chenille rugs, her comforters, her curtains, and yes, even her sewing patterns for handmade knickers (knickers!) — aren't the goal. They're not the end, they're not the there. They are merely a bridge.
These products, these branded products, are a bridge between the anonymous and the known, the food-from-factory and food-with-a-face. They are a bridge back to a world where folks could take pride in time spent in the kitchen. They are a bridge back to a world where wearing an apron is a source of pride, not shame. Many people need that bridge. And that means they need the instant. They need the style and the glossy photographs and the Ya Ya Farmgirl Sisterhood. They need that image of MaryJane holding up a happy little Organic! sign on their food. From there, the hope is that they can take the next step. Perhaps a U-pick berry stand. Then a farmer's market. Then maybe a tiny little garden of their own. If they're wearing a calico apron while preparing it? Especially if that apron was handmade by a rural artisan? No harm done.
Eating MaryJane's prepackaged instant meals may not bring folks closer to their food, but maybe, just maybe, entering her world will.