News & Awards

Butters churns huge interest in organic farming

Chicago Sun Times
June, 2005

by Sandy Thorn Clark

MaryJane Butters believes "there's a little bit of farmgirl in all of us." Of course, she means in women, but who's to quibble with the mother and organic farmer who has written and photographed her way from eggs and falafel mix to being a self-made millionaire?

Truth is, Butters didn't discover she was a writer until, at age 45, she needed a mail-order catalog for her line of organic foods produced on her 5-acre farm. Now, thanks to her magazine (MaryJanesFarm) and her first book, MaryJane's Ideabook / Cookbook / Lifebook for the Farmgirl in All of Us (Clarkson Potter, $35), she's regarded as America's organic lifestyle maven.

The 52-year-old entrepreneur is still in awe of her success, especially the $1.35 million advance for the 416-page book she wrote and photographed (600-plus color photos) in six months. The advance has meant financial security for Butters and her husband of 13 years, Nick Ogle, but it has meant something more to the farmer-first, millionaire-second Butters. She has been able to hire 18 full-time employees on her Moscow, Idaho, farm and cultivate 27 future organic farmers in her apprenticeship program, the Pay Dirt Farm School.

"It's a labor of love," says the entrepreneur sitting next to her daughter, Megan, in the posh lobby of Chicago's Ritz-Carlton during a 14-city promotional book tour. Both still are giddy over room service: "The breakfast bill was $90! Imagine!" Ah yes, Green Acres meets the Mag Mile.

Once a single mom raising two children, Butters is now living her dream of a family farm at the end of a dirt road -- complete with clematis vines, lilacs, wild roses, irises, strawberry patches and everything that protects the environment and sustains the farmer. Her heart remains with the family farm and the sustainable farmer (one who takes care of the land and their growing process), and she sings the praises of organic farming and farmers' markets.

"Food nurtures us in so many ways that it's important to support the family farm and locally-grown foods," says the farmgirl-turned-advocate. "It's an easy choice -- do you want a naturally-grown organic apple or an apple with 52 chemical ingredients? I'm not righteous about it, but I just think of all the things you spend your money on, food offers the best investment -- it's like life insurance. When you buy at farmers markets and organic restaurants, you'll save money in the long run on medical bills and you'll be supporting a beautiful [farm] landscape."

"I'm not a food snob and not a vegan, but I consider myself extremely healthy and people think of me as healthy," continues Butters, whose Web site describes organic crops as those raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organically-raised animals must be fed an organic feed and be given access to the outdoors but no antibiotics or growth hormones.

The mother of five (three from her husband's previous marriage) explains it's easy to incorporate organic and farmers market ingredients into everyday meal planning: "It's simply a matter of buying organic rather than chemically-ridden products. It's making a chopped salad with organically grown produce rather than non-organic produce. It's buying from farmers markets -- and Chicago has an amazing number all summer long."

Abby Mandel, founder and president of Green City Market (at the south end of Lincoln Park along the path between 1750 N. Clark St. and Stockton Drive), is both a fan of Butters and sustainable farmers markets. Mandel attributes the increased popularity of markets to "a return of basic values."

For the first time in the venue's seven-year history, Green City Market is open from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturdays in addition to its usual Wednesdays. "At the end of the day -- usually around 1 - everything's gone," Mandel notes.

Green City Market has 40 vendors from Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan on Wednesdays and 30-plus vendors on Saturdays. The most popular vendors sell fruit, cheese, and organic breads. Trolley service (through Lincoln Park and along Michigan Avenue) stops directly in front of the market. Locally, farmers markets operate in more than 40 other city and suburban locations.

Emphasizing that "farmgirl is a condition of the heart," Butters says MaryJane's Ideabook is intended to inspire and be a practical road map for "anyone who has farmgirl fantasies, grows herbs in a window box, takes knitting or crocheting classes at the Y, or hankers after a handmade wool sweater." Her manual for the contemporary woman is peppered with uncomplicated instructions for everything from darning socks and stitching clothespin aprons to tested-and-tasted farm recipes for spice blends, salsas, plum butter, and elderberry syrup.

Butters confesses she sometimes has to pinch herself to believe this MaryJane and farmgirl bonanza that continues to soar: MaryJane totebags with a photo of MaryJane as an adorable young blonde playing with fuzzy baby chicks in a crate; MaryJane notecards featuring her extraordinary photos of blue-as-can-be robin eggs in a nest and a rooster in a strawberry patch; MaryJane journals; an audio cassette of MaryJane reading her book; a Farmgirl Connection Web site, and a growing number of Farmgirl Chapters nationwide (beginning with 60 chapters the first four months).

And the MaryJane of all things MaryJane vows she won't become another Martha Stewart: "I've turned down TV offers because I think we need to turn off our TVs and read again. We have to take back our innocence."

Sandy Thorn Clark is a Chicago-based free lance writer.

WATERMELON SALSA

MAKES 21/2 CUPS
1 cup watermelon balls (using the small end of a melon scoop)
1 avocado, diced
1/4 cup red onion, chopped
4 tablespoons fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Mix together gently; serve chilled. As strange as it sounds, this salsa is excellent served on rice.

Nutrition facts per tablespoon: 9 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 1 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

From MaryJane's Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook

APRICOT BLUEBERRY (OR HUCKLEBERRY) CRISP

MAKES 12 SERVINGS
2 cups apricots
2 cups blueberries (or huckleberries)
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup butter, cut in pieces
1 cup flour
3 cups oats (not instant)
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place apricots and berries in a 12-by-8 baking dish. In a large bowl, blend brown sugar and butter with pastry cutter or fork. Stir in flour. Mix in oats until batter is clumped together. Scatter over the berries and sprinkle with walnuts. Bake for 35 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Nutrition facts per serving: 490 calories, 25 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 43 mg cholesterol, 58 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 143 mg sodium, 6 g fiber

From MaryJane's Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook


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