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She's cultivating the urbanites

The Oregonian
June, 2005

by Bob Hicks

The world of farmers markets, slow food, organics and general back-to-nature agriculture might have hard work in its sinews and dirt under its fingernails. But if it's going to sell in the city, it still needs a pretty package.

So meet the new cover girl.

"Discover your inner farmgirl," screams the full-page color ad in The New York Times. Beside that slightly outlandish exhortation is a luscious photo layout of homemade preserves, pie dough and rolling pin, sewing paraphernalia and fresh-picked fruit. Below it, on the cover of the book the ad is selling, is a soft-focus photo of a strong, smiling woman astride a bicycle. A blond braid sweeps across her shoulder, landing on her wide olive-green suspenders. A big-brimmed country-stylish straw hat hugs her head. A wire fruit basket hangs from the bike's handlebar.

"MaryJane's IdeabookCookbookLifebook," the cover copy reads. "For the farmgirl in all of us."

MaryJane Butters, a 52-year-old organic farmer from the Palouse country of Northern Idaho, is, in fact, a farm girl, and so are most of the women in the web of readers she's built through MaryJanesFarm, her nostalgic but exquisitely practical magazine (and organic-products catalog) about country living the old-fashioned way.

But Clarkson Potter Publishers didn't pay Butters a $1.35 million, two-book advance in 2003 to boost its sales at the grange hall. It's banking on downtown -- a critical mass of urban women, and maybe a few men, willing to buy into the romance of an organic and environmentally satisfying country life. Butters -- or at least Clarkson Potter -- is selling a dream.

Which is exactly what she advises organic farmers to do when they set up shop at urban farmers markets. "I tell them, 'Tell your story," Butters says in a phone conversation from Chicago, where she's on book tour. "Let these people know who you are so they can put a face on what you're doing."

Butters comes across as smart, funny, determined and even a little self-effacing. She's late for the phone interview, she wryly confesses, because she's been wandering the streets of Chicago and got lost.

But when it comes to her passion for reclaiming the robust and healthy country life she thinks was lost in America's transition to giant-scale, chemically enhanced corporate farming, she knows exactly where she is -- and the small-scale operators who bring their goods to farmers markets are her friends and allies in the good fight. "These are not people interested in commodity agriculture," she says. "They're interested in growing food for their neighbors."

To do that, Butters thinks, they need to be a bit hard-headed. And they need to rediscover the kind of diversification that made the old-style family farm work. "A farm is a quilt," she says. "You have to know construction, you have to know animals, you have to know neighborliness, a little bit of everything."

These days, she adds, farm diversification might include operating farm stands, selling at farmers markets, growing U-pick crops, holding down cash jobs, even writing a book. Her own farm includes a tent-style bed-and-breakfast where city people can come to experience farm life. "They get so excited," she says. "They say, 'Can I gather the eggs?' "

She's even more explicit about the benefits of agri-tourism in an online column in Idaho Rural Partnership, which serves farm families.

"When people come to my farm for an overnight stay in one of my wall tents for $120 per night or when they pay $10 for a one hour tour of my farm or $35 per person for a catered picnic or $2,950 for a week of 'how-to' instruction, I think of it as just another root crop I'm offering," she writes. ". . . Since most city folk dream of moving to the country, you can 'sell' your farm to supplement your regular farm operations."

That's practicality. But the kind of life she's trying to reclaim also has an aesthetic aspect, and the new breed of small, mostly organic farms that hug close to urban areas to be close to the city market are part of it. "Not just the food, but the landscape," she says. "I'd like to see small farms dotting the landscape again."

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