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Living on an Organic Farm

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

Photo: Theo Morrison

Butters has solid agrocredentials—she was one of Idaho’s earliest agitators for organic legislation, and she has served as chair of the state’s Organic Advisory Council. But with every hatbox sold and every clueless city mouse who books a tent, some say her farm looks more and more like a prop. Butters claims a 2004 New Yorker profile on her was a search-and-destroy mission, and she may never recover from the article’s most notorious line, “Butters is a farmer in the same way that Martha Stewart is a housewife.”

Like the parties in a finger-pointing divorce, neither Butters’s doubters nor her disciples are entirely wrong. “MaryJane is the real deal, not a Janie-come-lately airy-fairy back-to-the-lander who decided on a recent whim to ride the crest of the ‘go green’ movement,” Tad Bartimus, who covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press and was its first woman bureau chief, blogged on eons.com. “After decades of hardscrabble times, MaryJane is reaping the rewards of a life consistently lived in harmony with the landscape around her.”

If the rewards of Butters’s B&B are largely promotional, the competition is in it for the glamping only. Costanoa, south of San Francisco, has 76 canvas bungalows with lockable doors. In June, the Resort at Paws Up, in Greenough, Montana, added six outrageously luxurious canvas tents, complete with personal butlers. Many never recover from the sticker shock that comes with a stay in one of the 20 tents at Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Wilderness Resort: three nights, the minimum, is almost $4,000 per person. (Clayoquot, Costanoa, and Paws Up all have electricity.) Cornwall, England, of all places, is the site of a glampsite with 40 “authentic-style North American” tepees. Cornish Tipi Holidays considers itself lucky to be off the national grid; leave your hair dryer at home.

Though there’s electricity elsewhere on her farm, Butters left it out of the tents. Neither, at $139 per night, are they serviced: she wants glampers, not sissies. Actually, using battery-operated lanterns is less annoying and shapes the experience less than you might think. I liked the experience. I’m not a camper (I had no idea the role lime plays in privies), and I’m seriously uninterested in Idaho (the isolation—chilling), but I would go back. It takes a couple of days to properly explore the farm and, as I’ve said, Butters is very exciting to be around. Access is something else. The sheet of Frequently Asked Questions you receive when you make a reservation is very clear on this point.

Do [guests] get to meet MaryJane?

MaryJane’s schedule is hectic and often changes at the last minute, so guests will usually not get to meet MaryJane. However, she does join guests for breakfast in the Plum Pit from time to time.

Sigh.

Tents 4 and 5 have the best views and locations. I was in 4, which is also the most secluded, another plus. It was the middle of summer, with 92-degree days, but I lit a fire in the wood-burning stove every night, and it worked like a dream. A flouncy kidney-shaped dressing table held a hand mirror, a copy of Silent Spring, a candle that was supposed to smell like roasted chestnuts, Epsom salts, a bag of marbles, sunblock, Crazy Eights Playing Cards, a jigsaw puzzle, and approximately 63 other items. None of this was mere set-dressing. Everything was meant to be used. Butters likes things pretty, but they must also work. If there’s a fountain pen, it’s got ink in it.

The outdoor bathtubs are likewise no gimmick. I filled my tub with a garden hose screwed to my kitchen sink, lit the two propane camp stoves under the tub, went to dig up some sunchokes for dinner, and when I came back my bath was ready. (There are also two common indoor showers.) If you choose not to cook you’re at the mercy of whatever young recipe tester Butters happens to be employing at the moment. The one when I was there was good enough, serving slightly crude but satisfying versions of lasagna (layered with beet greens) and chicken piccata. Tents are generously stocked with nuts, fruit, energy and chocolate bars, beer, limeade, raw blue agave syrup, and an integrated mug-and-burner device for making hot drinks.

Sharing my outhouse with two other tents was, like the outhouse itself, mildly traumatic, though Butters does her best to take the sting out of the adventure with wildflowers in Ball jars, a handsome galvanized bucket for the lime, and a crocheted toilet-seat cover. Butters is a little trademark-happy—you see her looking at something as innocent as a toilet-seat cover and you wonder if she’s wondering how she can own it. She spent $80,000 unsuccessfully trying to register “Farmgirl” and wanted to acquire the domain name. But type in “farmgirl.com” and you’re hijacked to an unmentionable website. Losing “Farmgirl” almost killed Butters. But she’s moving on.

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