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Woman's home-based business turns into flourishing enterprise: The new face of full-time farming

Captial Press, July 2005
by Jamie Henneman, freelance writer

MOSCOW, Idaho MaryJane Butters has a knack for sharing her dreams with others. Her warm smile and enthusiasm have won her the support of 58 investors into her ready-made organic food business, along with a devoted full-time farm crew of nearly 20 people.

Simply put, MaryJanesFarm has a following.

This native Utah farmgirl moved to Idaho nearly two decades ago, claiming a five-acre parcel of land near Moscow as her new homestead. Turned off by the use of agricultural chemicals in her new Palouse country home, Butters started looking for a way to make organic farming profitable.

By networking with other pro-organic crop growers, Butters began to develop her own uses for organically grown beans, lentils and peas by creating ready-to-go backpacking foods.

Initially purchasing 700 pounds of a then-unheard-of miniature garbanzo bean called Aztec from Palouse farmer Marc Jacobson in 2000, Butters made her own falafel recipe out of these hearty legumes. Although initially dubbed the awful falafel by Butters children, the falafel recipe went on to become the green split pea soup recipe, the tabouli recipe and the lentil chili recipe.

These culinary dabblings with organic crops blossomed into Butters nation-wide mail-order business. Butters sells ready-made organic meal components like a one-skillet bake-over meal mix, organic kettle chili, organic curried lentil bisque and other mouth-watering delights through her catalog simply called MaryJanesFarm. Butters markets to those who would like to eat organically, but are pressed for time to go organic shopping or grow an organic garden.

Butters also reaches out primarily to women through her catalog that is part magazine and part product promotion. Filled with stories, household tips and rural how-tos, the magazine is sent to every customer who purchases $50 worth of her product, or through a traditional subscription.

Through the magazine and her website, Butters grossed $800,000 with her venture last year. She has also created a dedicated following of farmgirls that attend MaryJanesFarm Fair in July and attend her Pay-Dirt Farm School that teaches successful organic farming. Dedicated MJF farmgirls and tourists also stay at the farms unique bed and breakfast.

The entire farm, which has humorously been called MaryJane's empire by some, encompasses Butters initial five homestead acres, along with 50 acres owned by her husband Nick Ogle. Ogle was actually Butters neighbor for a number of years before they developed a relationship based on their common interest in value-added and organic farming. The couple married in 1993.

In order to make her farming dream a full-time job, Butters has essentially employed two skills she says are necessary to making a value-added business work.

For other farmers or farmgirls who have a dream about being able to farm full time, there are really two important things they must do, Butters said. They must be able to tell their farming story to others and they need to make their farm a destination place.

Butters is consistently telling her story through a variety of media that include her quarterly MaryJanesFarm magazine, an interactive website with a chatroom called the farmgirl connection, and through her first book a how-to-style hardback called MaryJane's Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook. Through these avenues, Butters effectively welcomes customers into her home by telling them stories about what is going on at the farm, while also introducing members of her staff and including dozens of artfully taken photographs of the homestead.

MaryJanesFarm has also become a destination place in the heart of the Palouse country because she offers a variety of on-site activities.

Her seasonal bed and breakfast offers visitors a unique way to get away from it all and still stay down on the farm. She currently offers seven comfortably furnished wall tents (complete with a woodstove and immaculately clean outhouse) and two huts or small cabins where visitors can stay. Overnight stays include an organic breakfast, along with the option of a personal mini harvest in the u-pick garden. Butters rents the wall tents out for $175 for the weekend, and charges $125 for the huts.

The bed and breakfast was at full capacity during the recent MaryJanesFarm Fair held over the Fourth of July weekend. The fair offers patrons a variety of activities, from vintage and antique shopping, farmers market style vendors, food vendors, self-guided tours of the farm, pony rides and farm-style photographs.

Butters own biodiesel-powered 1981 Mercedes-Benz was also on display, along with the German-made oil press they use to create the biodiesel. On acreage bordering the farm, Butters and Ogle raise 22 acres of mustard seed that is converted into fuel for the car. Butters had faith in the biodiesel idea that was initially as small as a mustard seed and applied to do research on her farm about how mustard could be used as a natural pest deterrent for crops. With a $50,000 grant from the state of Idaho, butters helped conduct the research and got the mustard seed crop to boot.

Although I don't think that producing mustard oil for world fuel is feasible (I worry about such mono-cropping endeavors), I do think that farmers can grow their own fuel, Butters relates in her book on page 181. People who are interested in growing their own fuel, kind of like keeping a woodlot on the back forty for firewood, can find out more at our Pay Dirt Farm School.

The Pay Dirt Farm School is perhaps one of the most practical reasons an agrarian visitor would frequent MaryJanesFarm. The school provides practical experience for individuals who value common sense and introduces them to the operations of an organic farm.

The school's mission, according to Butters' website, is to cultivate organic farmers and eaters. The website also notes that the school was founded with the belief that the elimination of deadly pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, along with the maintenance of healthy living soil and the rebuilding of local communities, all play a major role in the development of individuals who create positive change.

By having quality farming knowledge and a dream, Butters and Ogle feel any farm can become a success story.

Just persevere with the idea you have and don't listen to the nay-sayers. MaryJane has been very determined to make her ideas work and that's a big part of why this business has flourished, Ogle commented. I would also recommend not listening to what your banker has to say about a new idea. They don't really want you to try anything a little risky, he quipped.