Living: Back to the Land
Travel + Leisure
By Christopher Petkanas
From her organic farm in northern Idaho, agrarian impresario MaryJane Butters is selling an ever more popular back-to-basics lifestyle through books, products, and a B&B.
In MaryJane Butters’s planetview—worldview sounds too uninclusive—sinks hide their plumbing behind gay gingham aprons, girls are “gals,” unloved silverware is strung into wind chimes, and the talent for fitting 39 bales of hay in a standard-size pickup gets a daily workout. Butters, who seems to have lived at least 11 rugged lives in her 55 years, published a clip-and-save diagram of the bale-stacking technique in a recent issue of MaryJanesFarm, concluding, “Now, rope ’er down!”
Who needs to know this? Butters’s bimonthly magazine, which nostalgically extols the girlier possibilities of life on the farm, has a circulation of 100,000 (Country Living, by comparison, has 1.6 million) and 5,000 points of sale. Among these are not just Wal-Marts and happy-hands-at-home emporiums in the heartland, but fancy urban outlets like Whole Foods, too. Butters also has a range of Project F.A.R.M. (First-class American Rural Made) products, including a wire hatbox that doubles as a pie carrier and may have been inspired by a poultry cage, plus a full line of mail-order organic foods that are instant or require little preparation.
I have no understanding of this kind of food—it’s geared to hikers and provincial sports moms who struggle with box cakes. But when I visited Butters at her home and headquarters in the southern half of Idaho’s panhandle, a 50-acre organic farm that looks like the kind of Eden you see on milk cartons, she proposed a pouch lunch of her jambalaya (just add boiling water), and it seemed unprofessional to refuse. If Butters’s empire, which involves a B&B and a farm school, is not the apotheosis of organic living, a challenger has yet to come forward. It felt a little silly to be eating rehydrated rice on Butters’s porch, whose corrugated metal façade is decorated with screwed-on old pie tins and hammered-aluminum platters, when there was a full test kitchen steps away. But the tomatoey jambalaya was better, you might say, than it deserves to be. It was easy to see why the gals are so crazy about it—and her.
Shrewdness and naïveté come together in Butters in one compelling, inscrutable package. Even as you roll your eyes at the treacly “Farmgirl is a condition of the heart” slogan she has built her company on, you feel she knows something, and that if you hang out with her long enough it might rub off. Butters has been a secretary, a construction worker, a single mother, a Forest Service lookout and wilderness ranger, an environmental activist, and a milkmaid. For 37 consecutive years, she never lived anywhere with an indoor toilet. How may people can say all that?
By 2003, Butters showed enough promise as a well-pumping, prairie-skirt–wearing domestic tutor and rural lifestyle sage for Clarkson Potter to have signed her up for three books—and written her a check for $1.35 million. Having realized dreams she scarcely knew she had, she might have stopped there. But as brands are only as vital as their latest extensions, she opened a B&B on her farm outside the university town of Moscow, Idaho, the next year. With five almost surreally charming 12’ x 14’ wood-frame, canvas-wall tents (each with an outdoor kitchen with cold running water, a propane stove, and an iron fire pit), U-pick vegetable gardens, and antique claw-foot rolltop tubs for plein-air bathing, Butters’s B&B celebrates glamping (glamour + camping), “the juxtaposition of rugged and really pretty, grit and glam, diesel and absolutely darling!” Glamping is splitting logs with a fresh pink manicure.
Never handled an axe? As the station guard at Moose Creek, “the most remote ranger station in the Lower 48, twenty-seven miles from the nearest road,” Butters became accomplished at felling trees with hand tools. Today, chopping firewood is one of the skills she teaches during a seven-day class in Organic Home Economics at her Pay Dirt Farm School, where the goal is to cultivate farmers and eaters free of all the “cides.” Students are lodged in the tents. The economics course also offers excursions to neighboring farms and markets and instruction in seed saving, needlework, household budgeting, composting, and biofuel production. (Butters runs her 1981 Pepto-pink Mercedes at a cost of about $8 per gallon on canola and mustard seed, crushed in a $20,000 press paid for by a grant from the state of Idaho.) Single-morning workshops have names like Jump-Start Garden, which deals with raised beds, cold-framing, and permaculture; Crafts to Make and Sell (rag rugs, twig art, memory quilts); and Preserving the Harvest (freezing, drying, canning).
As usual, Butters is on to something with her school and safari-lite B&B. She has good pitch and even better timing, not surprising for someone Faith Popcorn once invited to join the board of her think tank. An unusually instinctive marketer, Butters created the only B&B she knew how, and it’s one big Rx for modern times, an unskeptical, uncynical draught of earthy escapism. Or just earthy enough. Tents are floored with reclaimed hardwood, and full-size vintage iron beds are made up with Butters-designed organic-cotton sheets. On the grounds are a smokehouse, a woodshed, a greenhouse, a pump house, a root cellar, a woodshop, four privies built on the dirt-lined-vault model, a warehouse and packing room for the food business, a design studio where the magazine is turned out, a “stitching” trailer that is Butters’s private atelier, a “bunkhouse” kitchen, a chicken coop papered in a grandmotherly posy pattern, a library inserted into an ancient barn, a horseshoe pit, a pond, and an alfresco living room in a grove of plum trees. Stock market got you down? Not happy with the way the wars are going? Can’t sell your house? MaryJane will fix you up. Or at least make you forget. Guests gather their own eggs for breakfast, pick vegetables for meals they cook themselves (rounded out with purchases from the excellent local co-op), and generally help with any farm chores that need doing.
Butters has solid agrocredentials—she was one of Idaho’s earliest agitators for organic legislation, and she has served as chair of the state’s Organic Advisory Council. But with every hatbox sold and every clueless city mouse who books a tent, some say her farm looks more and more like a prop. Butters claims a 2004 New Yorker profile on her was a search-and-destroy mission, and she may never recover from the article’s most notorious line, “Butters is a farmer in the same way that Martha Stewart is a housewife.”
Like the parties in a finger-pointing divorce, neither Butters’s doubters nor her disciples are entirely wrong. “MaryJane is the real deal, not a Janie-come-lately airy-fairy back-to-the-lander who decided on a recent whim to ride the crest of the ‘go green’ movement,” Tad Bartimus, who covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press and was its first woman bureau chief, blogged on eons.com. “After decades of hardscrabble times, MaryJane is reaping the rewards of a life consistently lived in harmony with the landscape around her.”
If the rewards of Butters’s B&B are largely promotional, the competition is in it for the glamping only. Costanoa, south of San Francisco, has 76 canvas bungalows with lockable doors. In June, the Resort at Paws Up, in Greenough, Montana, added six outrageously luxurious canvas tents, complete with personal butlers. Many never recover from the sticker shock that comes with a stay in one of the 20 tents at Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Wilderness Resort: three nights, the minimum, is almost $4,000 per person. (Clayoquot, Costanoa, and Paws Up all have electricity.) Cornwall, England, of all places, is the site of a glampsite with 40 “authentic-style North American” tepees. Cornish Tipi Holidays considers itself lucky to be off the national grid; leave your hair dryer at home.
Though there’s electricity elsewhere on her farm, Butters left it out of the tents. Neither, at $139 per night, are they serviced: she wants glampers, not sissies. Actually, using battery-operated lanterns is less annoying and shapes the experience less than you might think. I liked the experience. I’m not a camper (I had no idea the role lime plays in privies), and I’m seriously uninterested in Idaho (the isolation—chilling), but I would go back. It takes a couple of days to properly explore the farm and, as I’ve said, Butters is very exciting to be around. Access is something else. The sheet of Frequently Asked Questions you receive when you make a reservation is very clear on this point.
Do [guests] get to meet MaryJane?
MaryJane’s schedule is hectic and often changes at the last minute, so guests will usually not get to meet MaryJane. However, she does join guests for breakfast in the Plum Pit from time to time.
Tents 4 and 5 have the best views and locations. I was in 4, which is also the most secluded, another plus. It was the middle of summer, with 92-degree days, but I lit a fire in the wood-burning stove every night, and it worked like a dream. A flouncy kidney-shaped dressing table held a hand mirror, a copy of Silent Spring, a candle that was supposed to smell like roasted chestnuts, Epsom salts, a bag of marbles, sunblock, Crazy Eights Playing Cards, a jigsaw puzzle, and approximately 63 other items. None of this was mere set-dressing. Everything was meant to be used. Butters likes things pretty, but they must also work. If there’s a fountain pen, it’s got ink in it.
The outdoor bathtubs are likewise no gimmick. I filled my tub with a garden hose screwed to my kitchen sink, lit the two propane camp stoves under the tub, went to dig up some sunchokes for dinner, and when I came back my bath was ready. (There are also two common indoor showers.) If you choose not to cook you’re at the mercy of whatever young recipe tester Butters happens to be employing at the moment. The one when I was there was good enough, serving slightly crude but satisfying versions of lasagna (layered with beet greens) and chicken piccata. Tents are generously stocked with nuts, fruit, energy and chocolate bars, beer, limeade, raw blue agave syrup, and an integrated mug-and-burner device for making hot drinks.
Sharing my outhouse with two other tents was, like the outhouse itself, mildly traumatic, though Butters does her best to take the sting out of the adventure with wildflowers in Ball jars, a handsome galvanized bucket for the lime, and a crocheted toilet-seat cover. Butters is a little trademark-happy—you see her looking at something as innocent as a toilet-seat cover and you wonder if she’s wondering how she can own it. She spent $80,000 unsuccessfully trying to register “Farmgirl” and wanted to acquire the domain name. But type in “farmgirl.com” and you’re hijacked to an unmentionable website. Losing “Farmgirl” almost killed Butters. But she’s moving on.