MaryJane Butters: Is MaryJane’s Farm for real?

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.

14 Responsesto “MaryJane Butters: Is MaryJane’s Farm for real?”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for this post, Ali. I hear what you are saying about the 'bridge' for some folks. And a bridge can easily be a metaphor for hope, for change, in this case. I recently discovered Mary Jane myself and kept wondering, is this just a 'brand'? I was hoping for a person! But I guess I found a person who has evolved into a brand, which, for some people, I guess, is necessary to even begin to understand the 'farmgirl' in (all) of us. 

  2. Mary Jane Butters is a real person, a person who has bucked the system over and over again, who embodies the quote "Well-behaved women rarely make history".  She was the first female wilderness ranger in Idaho, a self-taught master carpenter, one of the first (if not the first) organic farmer in Palouse County, helped many organic grain farmers in her region find markets, started a fabulous farming school (of which I attended many years back), raised wonderful kids, and built a thriving organic business all while sticken to her roots.  Although I will never stitch, sew an apron, or paint my nails pink, I admire how Mary Jane has made it ok to be a feminine yet strong woman and how she is reviving many of the lost rural arts.

  3. "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."

    I've never heard of MaryJane Butters before but I completely agree with that statement. By the way, speaking of certification, growers should check out http://NaturallyGrown.org which is an alternative better small farmer based certification than the USDA Big-O Organic.

    Don't feel too bad about having some processed. The question is what is in the processed, who does it and what's done. For example, we make a lot of ready to eat meals for our family, canny up chili, soups, stews and stuff in the fall. These are technically processed ready to eat meals. We just pop them into a pot and instant hot dinner for those long winter nights.

    More recently we started having hot dogs made from our farm's pastured pork. It's simple, real, short-ingredient-list smoked all natural hot dogs. They sell out fast and people tell me they feel good about feeding their kids our hot dogs because its real food. Yes, it's processed (ground & smoked) but it is still quality food. Fact is, I'm spoiled now and can't eat other hot dogs because our own are sooo good!

    Cheers

    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    http://SugarMtnFarm.com/blog/
    http://HollyGraphicArt.com/
    http://NoNAIS.org

  4. "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."
     
    I've never heard of MaryJane Butters before but I completely agree with that statement. By the way, speaking of certification, growers should check out http://NaturallyGrown.org which is an alternative better small farmer based certification than the USDA Big-O Organic.
     
    Don't feel too bad about having some processed. The question is what is in the processed, who does it and what's done. For example, we make a lot of ready to eat meals for our family, canny up chili, soups, stews and stuff in the fall. These are technically processed ready to eat meals. We just pop them into a pot and instant hot dinner for those long winter nights.
     
    More recently we started having hot dogs made from our farm's pastured pork. It's simple, real, short-ingredient-list smoked all natural hot dogs. They sell out fast and people tell me they feel good about feeding their kids our hot dogs because its real food. Yes, it's processed (ground & smoked) but it is still quality food. Fact is, I'm spoiled now and can't eat other hot dogs because our own are sooo good!
     
    Cheers
     
    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    http://SugarMtnFarm.com/blog/
    http://HollyGraphicArt.com/
    http://NoNAIS.org

  5. H. Houlahan says:

    It never occurred to me to serve these meals at home.

    I always regarded them as backpacking food and emergency-kit rations.
    Does thinking of it that way assuage the angst?
    We've only made them at home when we were rotating stock -- eating up old stuff that didn't go on a backpacking trip.
     
     

  6. Deborah Dowd says:

    What an interesting post! I have to admit that I had not heard of Mary Jane but I will be looking her up! I guess we need to remember that at a time when people were much more in touch with their food, drying, and preserving, and curing were things done to preserve real food for times when it would not be available.  I think what you start with is what is important, and if these meals are a stop gap measure to deal with modern time demands, I can't seethe harm (or the reason forany guilt!)

  7. Pat Anderson says:

    Being up here in Canuckistan :-D
    I haven't heard of her or her products. But selling dried products does make me think of issues I'm trying to come to grips with.
    Right now, when I have too many tomatoes to eat fresh, I freeze them (I grow organic San Marzano paste tomatoes).
    That uses electricity to keep them frozen.
    I've been thinking of drying foods for preservation: especially veggies. Grains, we're used to being dried. Some fruit, some veggies (well, tomatoes are really a fruit, as are the squash family members and curcubits)... Being a single person, I don't always want to prepare a lavish meal from scratch, so I cook in bulk and freeze meal-size portions. Should I be drying and then packaging meal-size portions?
    I do not know the contents of MaryJane's dried food packets; maybe they are, as H. Houlihan suggests, best purposed for back-country-away-from-civilization trips or emergency rations. Or maybe there is an element there we should be considering for a future, energy-challenged world: in addition to bottling and canning, drying foods is also an option for preserving.
    When you live in a country that has winter and prohibitive costs to growing year round (ah, Iceland! your geothermal heat!) maybe we should be considering harvesting the summer's bounty and drying some of it.
     
     

  8. Pat, I've been drying a lot of produce this summer, and you raise an excellent question about drying meals.  I think you'd want to consider making meal mixes: rice, beans, dried vegetables, spices -- perhaps as an addition to freezing already-made dishes.  (There are recipes available, probably loads of them online!)  I haven't tried this yet, but you've given me something to think about!
    And Ali, thanks for the honest look at this.  As much as I like to cook and preserve my own food, I, too, sometimes face that dilemma about making something from a mix or from a package.  Sometimes you just have to make the compromise.  If it gets us to think a little more about the food and then try for homemade or local or whatever next time, even better.
     

  9. Rene G says:

    Ali,
    Interresting write up with so many great questions. I guess the one thing that I would say that could be missing from your piece is this...."we can best judge someones actions, when we know there heart". And in recent months I have been blessed to get to know MaryJane, spend time at the "working farm", and even use some of the mixes you discuss. And as Oprah would say, "This is what I know for sure".  There is no~one more passionate about Organics, and the challenges of farming nor have I met EVER anyone who's heart is bigger or who has more compassion. Her goals in my view aren't to be the "next Martha .. anyone"... I believe what propells her is an unwavering dediation to the women that she has met. Finding ways to fuel thier dreams, and by doing becoming a leader that maybe she never intended on becoming.  Some people become successful "chasing a dream", I believe that MaryJane's success is coming because she chose to "live her dream", and help others do the same.

    As to the packaged food~ I think you missed it a little. I believe this food was created to fill a need she saw back when she was in the wildress profession~ thinking,"there has got to be a better way".. and she didn't just get stuck in that~ she went and created a better way.. it isn't what she eats day in and day out, or even what she would want the farmgirls to eat day in and day out... it was a specific plan for a specific need.. and I say Kudos.

    I wish my heart were as BIG as I know hers to be.. and that is a bridge worth crossing...

  10. Ali B. says:

    Rebecca T. and Rene G. - thanks for writing. I love the personal perspective. When I started looking in to this, I was a bit like the first Rebecca commenter - wondering whether she was nothing but a very slick brand.  I found quite the opposite, which was heartening - it's not often that this happens. Especially reading your comments, I'd love to meet her one day. She does sound like a helluva' woman.
    And Rene G., you're right that this food started as backpacking fare (which is how H. Houlahan, above, uses them). But for the record, that's not how it's currently marketed. It's marketed as more everyday fare, which is what prompted my Ethicurean conflict. From the web site:
    "On those nights when you haven't the energy to
    even chop up vegetables (you know those nights),
    I'm really there for you.
    All you need is one of my instant Pouch Cook® meals...

    Let's say tonight everyone in your household will be arriving home for dinner at different times. From your pantry you choose from my Instant foods: Chilimac, Buttery Herb Pasta, Sweet Corn and Black Bean Chowder, and Southwestern Couscous. You set the packages out for everyone to choose from. For yourself, you pick Peasant Tomato Soup.

    Since tonight you're needing time for a long hot bath, you dine directly from the pouch. The pouch is attractive and non-aluminum (this helps with the guilt thing). No dirty dishes. Dessert is a fresh apple or grapes or a pouch of my Organic Bavarian Chocolate Mousse."
    The thing is, I get what she's talking about - anyone who has tried to manage a family AND get dinner on the table night after night knows what she's talking about. There's a reason fast food exists, and I'd take MaryJane's food over most instant fare any day. It just seems to fall short of what she's shooting for, big picture.
    I like Pat and Jennifer's thought about drying as a way of preserving foods, though. Does dried, packaged, one-meal-at-at-time food seem any less Ethicurean-guilt-worthy if the point is preservation, rather than convenience? Somehow it does.
    (why should intention make a difference? alas, that's a question for another post, perhaps).
     

  11. Emily says:

    Someone suggested to me that I take these on business trips for my inevitable 10pm snack urge. It's cheaper than room service, and you know what you're getting! Or when driving cross-country...sounds way better than fast food, by a mile. Just stop at a truck stop and top them up with hot water. And oh, buy a juice or something so's not to mooch too much. :)

  12. Rene G says:

    Ali,
    I stand corrected and I think you are right, it has morphed into something people want to use in a pinch whether at home or on the mountain top.. Although that wasn’t its original intent, I guess others know a GREAT thing when they see one.
    After some thought I would add this~ In today's world all of us, on some days... try to find short cuts where we can.. as a mom of 4 I am no different.. it comforts me to know that in those "moments", there is still a better alternative then anything else we are finding in the stores. Having come into this whole.... eating "right" thing late and having to change my families habits I am finding that the things I fix from the MaryJane line doesn’t end up just growing mold on my counters... So call it what you will.. and decide whether it fits whatever title you want to call it.. I am grateful that there is something and someone reaching out to help those of us that are willing to take the journey but don’t know the whole route....
    I hope you do have the honor of meeting MaryJane at some point as you will be blessed beyond measure.... Love your blog and even the best of us are wrong every now and again.

  13. Is Mary-Jane relying on 'animal powered farming', apparently the latest trend in farming:
    first solar, then wind, now animal powered ... http://lamarguerite.wordpress.com/2008/08/16/first-solar-then-wind-now-animal-powered/
     
     
     
     

  14. Jerry says:

    I love this discussion.  I am so pleased to once again see more and more people waking up and looking at the world around them, rather than just gliding through.  Yes, we need to have these kinds of debates about each and everything we distribute or consume.  However, one can over-analyze and no human can achieve perfection for even a moment, never say throughout their lives.
    Based on the testimonies of above comments, it would seem that Mary Jane is basically as authentic as the advertising would appear.  I can certainly understand the necessity for her to develop her company and products to a national level, in order to spread awareness of sustainable, agrarian life possibilities.
    I would say the big question is "Is MaryJane a publicly traded corporate entity".  If so then it is likely that this corporate entity is as subject to shareholder expectations than any other such organization.  Again, based on the testimonials, it would not seem that this is the case.  It would seem that Mary Jane Butters (and I am sorry but I just can't help picturing Southpark's Butters here, lol) likely uses her company's profit to further develop and awareness of sustainable, natural living.
    I know that I believe sincerely in developing sustainable local economies once more, as opposed to orienting all society around servicing the global economy.  I also believe in the development of sustainable agrarian village communities.  However, these communities must develop within the current model and therefore capital is required.  In order to maintain sustainable and natural ideals, this often means marketing products towards members of society who HAVE NOT yet realized the necessity or benefits to this lifestyle.
    I understand Mary Jane's business plan and (like Pat Anderson, I am Canadian and do not see these or too many similar products and businesses) find myself developing a similar plan here in Alberta Canada.  I would love to see real communities form around various scale agrarian enterprises, be they industrial, agricultural or otherwise.  I believe there is real potential here.
    Be well, all.