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Living on an Organic Farm

Farmworkers Katy King and Denali Struble in the on-site greenhouse.

Photo: Theo Morrison

In MaryJane Butters’s planetview—worldview sounds too uninclusive—sinks hide their plumbing behind gay gingham aprons, girls are “gals,” unloved silverware is strung into wind chimes, and the talent for fitting 39 bales of hay in a standard-size pickup gets a daily workout. Butters, who seems to have lived at least 11 rugged lives in her 55 years, published a clip-and-save diagram of the bale-stacking technique in a recent issue of MaryJanesFarm, concluding, “Now, rope ’er down!”

Who needs to know this?Butters’s bimonthly magazine, which nostalgically extols the girlier possibilities of life on the farm, has a circulation of 100,000 (Country Living, by comparison, has 1.6 million) and 5,000 points of sale. Among these are not just Wal-Marts and happy-hands-at-home emporiums in the heartland, but fancy urban outlets like Whole Foods, too. Butters also has a range of Project F.A.R.M. (First-class American Rural Made) products, including a wire hatbox that doubles as a pie carrier and may have been inspired by a poultry cage, plus a full line of mail-order organic foods that are instant or require little preparation.

I have no understanding of this kind of food—it’s geared to hikers and provincial sports moms who struggle with box cakes. But when I visited Butters at her home and headquarters in the southern half of Idaho’s panhandle, a 50-acre organic farm that looks like the kind of Eden you see on milk cartons, she proposed a pouch lunch of her jambalaya (just add boiling water), and it seemed unprofessional to refuse. If Butters’s empire, which involves a B&B and a farm school, is not the apotheosis of organic living, a challenger has yet to come forward. It felt a little silly to be eating rehydrated rice on Butters’s porch, whose corrugated metal façade is decorated with screwed-on old pie tins and hammered-aluminum platters, when there was a full test kitchen steps away. But the tomatoey jambalaya was better, you might say, than it deserves to be. It was easy to see why the gals are so crazy about it—and her.

Shrewdness and naïveté come together in Butters in one compelling, inscrutable package. Even as you roll your eyes at the treacly “Farmgirl is a condition of the heart” slogan she has built her company on, you feel she knows something, and that if you hang out with her long enough it might rub off. Butters has been a secretary, a construction worker, a single mother, a Forest Service lookout and wilderness ranger, an environmental activist, and a milkmaid. For 37 consecutive years, she never lived anywhere with an indoor toilet. How may people can say all that?

By 2003, Butters showed enough promise as a well-pumping, prairie-skirt–wearing domestic tutor and rural lifestyle sage for Clarkson Potter to have signed her up for three books—and written her a check for $1.35 million. Having realized dreams she scarcely knew she had, she might have stopped there. But as brands are only as vital as their latest extensions, she opened a B&B on her farm outside the university town of Moscow, Idaho, the next year. With five almost surreally charming 12’ x 14’ wood-frame, canvas-wall tents (each with an outdoor kitchen with cold running water, a propane stove, and an iron fire pit), U-pick vegetable gardens, and antique claw-foot rolltop tubs for plein-air bathing, Butters’s B&B celebrates glamping (glamour + camping), “the juxtaposition of rugged and really pretty, grit and glam, diesel and absolutely darling!” Glamping is splitting logs with a fresh pink manicure.

Never handled an axe?As the station guard at Moose Creek, “the most remote ranger station in the Lower 48, twenty-seven miles from the nearest road,” Butters became accomplished at felling trees with hand tools. Today, chopping firewood is one of the skills she teaches during a seven-day class in Organic Home Economics at her Pay Dirt Farm School, where the goal is to cultivate farmers and eaters free of all the “cides.” Students are lodged in the tents. The economics course also offers excursions to neighboring farms and markets and instruction in seed saving, needlework, household budgeting, composting, and biofuel production. (Butters runs her 1981 Pepto-pink Mercedes at a cost of about $8 per gallon on canola and mustard seed, crushed in a $20,000 press paid for by a grant from the state of Idaho.) Single-morning workshops have names like Jump-Start Garden, which deals with raised beds, cold-framing, and permaculture; Crafts to Make and Sell (rag rugs, twig art, memory quilts); and Preserving the Harvest (freezing, drying, canning).

As usual, Butters is on to something with her school and safari-lite B&B. She has good pitch and even better timing, not surprising for someone Faith Popcorn once invited to join the board of her think tank. An unusually instinctive marketer, Butters created the only B&B she knew how, and it’s one big Rx for modern times, an unskeptical, uncynical draught of earthy escapism. Or just earthy enough. Tents are floored with reclaimed hardwood, and full-size vintage iron beds are made up with Butters- designed organic-cotton sheets. On the grounds are a smokehouse, a woodshed, a greenhouse, a pump house, a root cellar, a woodshop, four privies built on the dirt-lined-vault model, a warehouse and packing room for the food business, a design studio where the magazine is turned out, a “stitching” trailer that is Butters’s private atelier, a “bunkhouse” kitchen, a chicken coop papered in a grandmotherly posy pattern, a library inserted into an ancient barn, a horseshoe pit, a pond, and an alfresco living room in a grove of plum trees. Stock market got you down?Not happy with the way the wars are going?Can’t sell your house?MaryJane will fix you up. Or at least make you forget. Guests gather their own eggs for breakfast, pick vegetables for meals they cook themselves (rounded out with purchases from the excellent local co-op), and generally help with any farm chores that need doing.

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