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The Leader of the Farmgirl Pack

Chicago Tribune, Sunday edition, July 24, 2005
By Barbara Mahany

Psst, hey you. Tap-tap-tap on the shoulder. Not that we're bein' nosy, but we've got a hunch about you: Chances are good, plenty good, you're one of 'em. Er, one of us, I should say. A city slicker, a suburban mama even, who harbors silo dreams. -- Don't pretend not to know what that means. C'mon. 'Fess up. -- You till your back patch, or maybe just the pitiful pot on your fire escape, you pretend it's your unending acres with row after row of organic exotica. You see a cow, you dream of milking one. You think going to sleep to the sound of crickets and nothing but crickets, or the occasional moo from the barn, is somnolence perfected. -- And on the other end of the night sky, waking up with the sun and the rooster, well, heck that's enough to stir you right out from under the 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. Sit back, ladies and gents. Have we got a headliner for you. MaryJane's the name, MaryJane Butters. -- Pleased to meet you, ma'am. Might' pleased ...

MJB says: It's not about her, it's about what she stands for. "I think it's an issue of old-fashioned values and sensibilities living in a modern world ... Be careful what you watch on TV. Instead of watching women talk on a talk show, turn your living room into a talk show. Get to talking to your neighbors."

Butters, who might be called the reigning farm queen, has every reason to make herself a household word, one of those first-name-only sorts, pretty much in the parade kicked off by Martha and Oprah, to name but two.

Already, there are women coast-to-coast who talk about MaryJane as if she is their long-lost sister. They clip her recipes. They follow her directions for how to make a tin woman out of soup cans, and scare away the crows. They rush to the mailbox to see if her latest "magalog" (part chatty farmgirl magazine, part catalog for her line of organic dried camping foods and other essentials) is tucked inside.

They click on her Web site ( and chat all about everything from mothering an abandoned calf to how to get dirt out from under their manicured nails.

And you can bet they are licking up every morsel of her new "MaryJane's Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook" (Clarkson Potter, 416 pages, $35), a tome that Butters resisted writing 'til that or a farm auction seemed the only way out of her dire post-9/11 fiscal straits. But then, as if straight from some Hollywood script, the 63-page proposal wound up the object of a five-way bidding war among New York publishers that landed her a $1.35-million, two-book deal.

'A condition of the heart'

Not so shabby for a once-single mom who raised her two kids without running water or electricity for seven years, but saw fit to wallpaper the chicken coop in vintage wallpaper.

Before we sit you down with Miz Butters, whose hand-embroidered motto is "farmgirl is a condition of the heart," we want you to meet a bona fide citygirl-cum-farmchick who swears that MaryJane leapt right out from the magazine rack in The Merchandise Mart one dreary day last March and darn near saved her life.

Take it Susan Atwell: "I'm working in Chicago, working at The Mart; I'm in a bookstore. I'm holding on. It's gray and dark and it's suicide prevention month. We're in the bookstore at lunch, killing time. There's MaryJane," at which point in the retelling of this tale she actually yelps. "She's got the hands like I do, the same big veins poppin' out. Everybody at work used to make fun of my `man's hands.'

"I picked up the magazine and it was just like I was starving and somebody handed me a plate of everything I needed to nourish me. Finding a farmwoman-oriented magazine, and being a farmgirl in the city for so long, feeling like I didn't belong. And finding it in Chicago of all places. I had to buy it."

And then she devoured it, it and all the back copies she could get her vein-poppin' hands on.

'It's doable'

Come April, Atwell lost the job she'd had for 6 1/2 years as a merchandiser for a large home furnishings firm at The Mart. But she had MaryJane on her side now, so she went home to a 7-acre farm in LaPorte, Ind., her family had helped her buy in 2000. She named it Fat Quarter Quilt Farm and all summer she's been quilting, plucking wild blackberries from out by her tree line and starting up the LaPorte chapter of the MaryJanesFarm Farmgirls, one of 85 such gaggles popping up about the country, including a few in places as far from the farm as Brooklyn, N.Y., and Ft. Worth, Texas.

What blows Atwell away about Butters is this: "Being a woman and having a farm and making a difference, it's doable. She's real. It's not fluff. It matters. This is important stuff she's doing. This is not Martha talking about entertaining her friends. We've gotta have farming. We've gotta have people working the earth, and working the earth responsibly -- or else."

Atwell is but one of the women taking up the plow. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farms operated by women more than doubled since 1978, from slightly more than 100,000 to almost 250,000 today. Women are the fastest-growing group buying small farms with 27.2 percent of agricultural producers being women in 2002, up from 12.6 percent in 1997, according to USDA statistics.

Long and winding road

Butters, 52 -- who bought her 5 acres at the end of a dirt road on Paradise Ridge in Moscow, along the western edge of Idaho, for $45,000 in 1986 after relentlessly searching for 10 years -- was at the head of the farmgirl pack.

Chomping to make her farm dreams real, she hoarded whatever money she saved in a can that hung from a rope lowered into the coal chute. Her heart's desire showed up in a classified ad: "Remote old homestead, five acres, orchard, well, $45,000."

Quick to figure out she couldn't make it without some serious enterprising, Butters is a case study in stick-to-itivity.

Over the years, she has started a line of 60 organic backpacking foods, sold shares in her farm to some 66 stockholders, written and distributed a black-and-white mail-order catalog that turned into the full-color, ad-free "magalog," now in its seventh edition and distributed in racks that range from Barnes & Noble to Wal-Mart to Whole Foods to the local tractor supply center, opened a farm school that brings in $3,000 per week per student, and a B&B that'll set you back $175 a night should you come on the weekend. And those are only the highlights.

"You go to bed at night thinking, `Oh my God, there's gonna be a farm auction,' you wake up with an idea, you pull up your boots, you buckle down," said Butters, sipping ice cold water one recent hot afternoon when she dropped in on Wagner Farm, the last working farm in Cook County, though it's now owned and operated as a learning farm by the park district of Glenview.

In a long and winding conversation that ambled from the farmhouse kitchen to the barn where two weeks-old calves couldn't get enough of her gentle touch, Butters re-spun the amazing yarn of just how a girl from Ogden, Utah, went on to be a fire watcher for the forest service in a remote lookout tower, where she would spend long summers all alone, save for the sewing machine she hauled 100 feet up into the tower, and then, after stops as a carpenter, waitress, seamstress, secretary, janitor and milkmaid, onto a life as a farmgirl.

'Take back your innocence'

Seriously on the brink of losing her farm not so long ago, she nearly pinches herself at the fact that she now employs 18 full-time workers to help her run MaryJanesFarm, an ever-evolving operation that, besides drawing ever more farm fanatics, provides organic fruits, vegetables and eggs for an 18-family CSA (community supported agriculture) and even grows a biodiesel mustard crop to fuel her 1981 Mercedes-Benz, which she had her son, Emil, custom-paint to match her favorite pink fingernail polish, one named "Shootout at the OK Coral."

She has yet to open a savings account, though, a fact that rankles her accountant to no end. "I don't want to be rich," she says, "and I don't want to be a big business. I've turned down TV. I want to run money through my hands. I want to connect people."

That she is in the midst of becoming a one-name farm phenom doesn't ruffle her. It's not about her, she says, it's about what she stands for. "I think it's an issue of old-fashioned values and sensibilities living in a modern world. For me, it's take back your innocence. Be careful what you watch on TV. Instead of watching women talk on a talk show, turn your living room into a talk show. Get to talking to your neighbors.

"Neighborhoods, you can have that in a city. We've experimented with the other, and it's proven to be a disaster -- to not know your neighbor. And we know that in the human heart we're capable of incredible kindness. That kind of compassion is incredibly nurturing and we've let it slip through our fingers."

Re-discovering America

Whether you step onto asphalt or dirt when you walk out your front door each morning, the message is one that doesn't seem like fad or whimsy.

Lois Weisberg, Chicago's commissioner of cultural affairs, and a woman famed for her capacities to shrink the degrees of separation between Person A and Person Z, was one of the first to see the candle power in Butters' ideas.

"She's like a Cinderella fairy godmother farmer," says Weisberg, who a few years back, out of the blue, got a letter and a magazine from some farmgirl in Moscow, Idaho. Weisberg gets a hundred or so letters a week from folks who think she might be able to connect their Next Great Idea to just the right person. The letter from Butters blew her away.

"I read every word of it, absolutely compelling. She really is a farmgirl, but she's got something special. She has tapped a kind of a longing, particularly among young people who want to do something -- how can I put it? -- not to escape. She has hit on something in people that wants to do something about the environment, their bodies, about not living in a high-rise. It's like the people crossing the country to go West; it's discovering America."

Weisberg, who now grows garlic on the roof of City Hall, introduced Butters to a New York literary agent who spent the next few years telling Butters, "You need to write a book."

Sociologist Bernard Beck, a professor at Northwestern University, seconds the motion; it's clear, he says, that Butters is onto something.

"It's a very impressive story, not only a simple message, but a message going back to the founding of America. Go back to your land. It's a life of simplicity, of human scale. Those are themes that keep surfacing in the history of this country," says Beck. "It also shows a dissatisfaction with the way things are going. In recent years, there's a retro culture, a sense that things used to be better, a yearning to return to an earlier time. A sense that there used to be something we had that we lost."

MaryJane Butters found it. On 5 acres at the end of a dirt road. On a place she pinned her own name to, MaryJanesFarm, a plot that's home to 40 chickens, two cows, three goats, two beehives, one pond thick with bass, 3 acres of vegetables, 60 kinds of garlic, 2,000 iris and one long-braided farmgirl wild enough to dream of a world where we feed our neighbor, listen to her stories, stitch our lives back together and motor around the farm in a hot pink Mercedes fueled on mustard.

Even crazier, she's scattering the seeds of those dreams, telling farmgirls -- even ones who knit on the subway, or harvest their organics just beyond the shadows of a high-rise -- they can live the farmgirl life. They can be connected. They can lift each other up. They can have their silo dreams.

5 points for cultivating farmgirl life in the city

By MaryJane Butters
Special to the Tribune
Published July 24, 2005

It starts with what I call a farmgirl fantasy: A job where you see and feel and eat the fruits of your labor. A place where connecting with the earth is not a to-do item but an inevitability, where work and home are not separate worlds but fully integrated.

No wonder there's a new breed of farmers emerging to pick up the plow: women. But first toss out your image of "farmer." These are farmgirls who remember the farm life they never led. Whether from the city or the country, women are the fastest growing group of people buying small farms. Even savvy authors like Barbara Kingsolver are becoming farmers. We're not interested in big commodity farms. We like feeding our neighbors. In 1997, 9 percent of agricultural producers were women. In 2002, we made up 27 percent. At this rate, in 10 years women could own 75 percent of American farmland.

In my case, "farmgirl" wasn't a fantasy; it was an obsession, one I had for almost 10 years before I found my five acres at the end of a dirt road. How did I do it? I thumbed through real-estate ads as if my life depended on it. I traveled country roads knocking on doors as if I was "some kind of something." I was undeterred and unrelenting. I hoarded my money in a can hanging from a rope lowered into a coal chute. My place showed up one day in an ad: "Remote old homestead, five acres, orchard, well, $45,000."

But you don't have to buy a farm to be a farmgirl. Whether you live in Boise or Boston, the farmgirl spirit is a way of life that reconnects our past to a healthier future. It celebrates the reusable, the homemade and the sensible.

Here are five ways to get the farmgirl feel.

1. Put on an apron. Where have all the aprons gone? Undone by convenience foods and politics, they're hard to find. Women's aprons are a mix of ceremony, lace and utility. They separate your outside self from your inside self. They're a fashion statement. They also serve a practical purpose -- pockets -- a place for tools, biscuits, plants, seed packets, gloves, sunglasses, a flashlight, children's toys. If you can't find one and you didn't inherit any, dust off your sewing machine. Go to, click on "shop," and search for "apron." Even if you haven't the time for a sewing project, get it ordered and tuck it in a drawer before it, too, becomes extinct.

2. Skip the dryer. Get good at nuzzling your face into line-dried linens. The smell of ozone is intoxicating. To master this one, buy a clothesline or non-electric clothes dryer. There's no better place to do this than Lehman's (; 888-438-5346). With two retail stores in Ohio, Lehman's was founded in 1955 to serve the Amish, who believe in simple living without electricity. On their Web site, you'll find retractable clothes dryers, clothesline pulleys, Amish-made wall-mounted wooden dryers, floor dryers, outside spinning dryers, wooden clothespins, even old-fashioned pant stretchers.

3. Learn to eat salad with a spoon. Quit fussing with gourmet salads, the kind you chase around your plate. Simply retool and rethink this wondrous food. Toss your salad forks into permanent hibernation. The secret to the plentiful partaking of salad greens is "the salad spoon" . . . as in soup spoon. Buy or grow strong, vitamin-packed greens like kale, parsley, tat soi, napa cabbage, beet greens, spinach, basil, chard, sorrel, dark lettuces, dandelion greens and Good King Henry along with lettuce, carrots, sunchokes, broccoli, squash, etc. Put all of it on a cutting board and start chopping. Dress with olive or flax oil and balsamic vinegar. For breakfast, add a hard-boiled egg or apple chunks or raisins. If it's dinnertime, add some bits of cooked potatoes or rice or lentils. You'll quadruple the amount of greens you eat once you start eating salad with a spoon.

4. Darn a sock. Our throwaway society costs us not only environmentally, but also in the satisfaction of small accomplishments. If you can't find an heirloom sock darner, use a burned-out light bulb. Stuff it into your worn-out sock as if it were your heel and start weaving back and forth, in and out. Never put a knot in your yarn (or cotton thread if you're working on a pair of summer socks), because it'll feel like a small pebble against your foot. Just start weaving back and forth, up and down. The nearby threads will hold the end in place as you repair the hole. Remember "A stitch in time . . . " It's easiest to darn a sock just before it gets a hole.

5. Adopt some baby chicks. Consider a different kind of back-yard pet, one that helps with breakfast. From posh suburbs to inner-city yards, chicken coops are cropping up across the United States. Sales of live chicks have boomed in the last few years; one estimate has the number of back-yard flocks in Los Angeles alone at 10,000. For baby chicks delivered in the mail, go to To buy a "hen spa," go to For a beginner's how-to video, go to (Local ordinances vary; check with the legal department of your city/village/township. )



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