Organic.org Farmer Profile: MaryJane Butters
by Holly Funk
I had the pleasure of catching up with MaryJane Butters at the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise while she and her daughter Megan, continue along their national book tour promoting MaryJane’s first book, “MaryJane’s Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook.” Ms. Butters is striking and just as at ease in person as she looks on the pages of her new book. She wears her trademark long silvery blond hair in a loose bun and greets me--with her daughter Megan at her side--with such hospitality that I immediately felt like I have stepped onto her farm. Wearing a chic denim jacket, rolled up jeans and wonderful costume-jewelry, MaryJane dons an apron that would somehow look out of place on anyone else, but truly works for her. We settle into our conversation about her experience as an organic farmer while enjoying the kids at garden camp racing earthworms nearby.
An Idaho farmer for the past 20 years, MaryJane’s roots in organic living run deep. Having grown up in a “fanatically self-sufficient” working-class Mormon family, it was essential for her family to provide their own food. Her mother grew and preserved their food, sewed clothes, created communities, and like most mothers, strove to give her family the best life she could with what they had. After working for several years in the forest service, it seemed natural that MaryJane follow her dreams down Wild Iris Lane to the farm on which she had always hoped for to raise her young family. Little did she know, she would end up growing an organic farming business of 18 workers and 22 acres. Nor would she have ever thought she would have ended up with a book advance of 1.35 million dollars just two years ago.
As certified organic grower #8 in Idaho, MaryJane has watched the organic industry evolve and witnessed its reaches beyond rural America. When asked about the main-stream interest in living an organic lifestyle, MaryJane shows her fire and becomes very serious: “I think we need to take back our language. I want to call my organic carrots ‘carrots’ and let [other farmers] call theirs a chemical carrot.” And they can list all of the ingredients that they used instead of me having to be certified. The burden is on us to prove something. Let them prove that they used only 30 chemicals instead of 50 to produce an apple.” The organic industry may have a ways to go in terms of this mind-set, but it has come many miles over the years.
About fifteen years ago, state legislature was still hammering out laws on organic agriculture. Farmers on the organic bandwagon had the Idaho Organic Advisory Board on which MaryJane served as chair. The group gained support of the Department of Agriculture and with help from civil employees in the Weights and Measures group, laws were passed to certify organic produce farmers. But MaryJane wanted to bring a value-added organic product to market: the garbanzo bean called Aztec, or Desi in the form of her Falafel Mix. MaryJane would be the first organic farmer to be considered an organic manufacturer in the state of Idaho and to get her pre-packaged falafel mix to boast the word “organic,” MaryJane had to present her product to the state legislature. She was not met by a welcoming committee. The group did not seem to "get" the organic movement that she believed would gain momentum. To sum up the climate of the meeting, a big towering man approached her and boomed, “We don’t want you to put the word organic on your food because you get more money for it, and it isn’t any different than ours.” The legislature voted against using organic on the packaging of her falafel, and a defeated MaryJane headed home and remembers thinking “but 50 years ago, you were all organic farmers!”
MaryJane hung in there and a decade and 60 products (and counting) later, MaryJane is pleased to report that MaryJanesFarm recently hosted 100 state commissioners for a $45/head lunch from her organic garden served in their one room school house. The cross-section of people there all “got” it. They aren’t the only ones: farmgirl communities are springing up all over the place. Learn more about what it means to be a farmgirl and learn how MaryJanesFarm is living its legacy as a model for other small farms.
Holly Funk recently joined the staff at Organic.org and is currently a farmgirl in training!