How did I come to be the “MaryJane” that captivated Toni’s imagination? Five years ago, before the idea of MaryJanesFarm and my playful definition of “farmgirl” made the newspaper that Toni read, I was known as Paradise Farm, since my little five-acre piece of paradise was nestled at the base of Paradise Ridge. When I bought my piece of ground some 20 years ago, I dreamed of making my living as a farmer. My first season here, I sold green bell peppers, pickling cucumbers, and other odds and ends. But to make more money from my crops, I needed a longer growing season. So I built six hoophouses that I had to crawl into on my hands and knees. It was good training, because for the next 15 years, keeping my farm and making a living required lots of kneeling — the late night prayerful variety that builds mighty calluses on both kneecaps.
During the Paradise Farm era, when my daughter was all of 7 years old and still letting me put her hair in two braids, she zenned me in a stunning way. A single mom living the homestead life, without indoor plumbing, without money, I drove a car so old we wore masks in it because it sucked dust in through the rusty floorboards (my son remembers getting his leg stuck in one of the holes), when late one evening coming home from town, the driveline fell off. It jammed into the ground like a javelin. Crying, I lifted my 3-year old from his seat and the three of us began to walk. My daughter grabbed my hand, “Momma, there’s always something good out of something bad.”
With her words as my mantra, I survived the next decade by reinventing myself over and over again, growing this, growing that, trying this and trying that.
My mother had seen to it that I had a passion for feeding people, and my father had taught me how to grow absolutely anything. Given I’d worked for the Forest Service right out of high school, and I wanted to create a secure value-added market for other local farmers, I eventually ended up with a line of backpacking foods — the kind of foods I would have liked when I was backpacking as a wilderness ranger.
Breaking into the outdoor industry with my line of organic backpacking foods was a struggle. My labels were black and white (cheaper to produce) and my packaging humble. I was hanging on with a bottom line that never seemed to speak black when, in 1997, I got a call from a buyer with a 25-year-old behemoth in the outdoor industry that sells water filters, camp stoves, tents, etc. Apparently, they were in a corporate meeting discussing expansion plans, when an employee whose claim to fame was that he never spent a weekend at home under a roof threw one of my black and white paper-sack packages on the table. “Here’s what I eat and what we should be doing.” We inked a deal. I would lose my identity as Paradise Farm and put their fancy four-color label on my foods. In no time, my sales quadrupled. Did my bottom line? As a middle man, they had factored in a decent margin for themselves. For sure, I was producing more food and working around the clock to meet their orders, but my bottom line was now screaming red.
Every year, the outdoor industry gathers together in Salt Lake City for a huge buyer’s show and vendor rally. I asked if I could come to their booth, at my expense, to demo my foods. I was referred to several times as the “food server.” Needing a break from making my Garlic Pesto Fry Breads on a griddle, I wandered into another booth, where a man in the same situation as me was serving his foods under someone else’s label. I explained who I was. “Well,” he said honestly, “you’ve invented some great recipes. I’ve copied several of them, like your Chilimac. Here try mine.” When, eventually, my foods won the prestigious “Editors’ Choice” from “Backpacker” magazine and no one told me that my “private label” foods had won, I decided it was time to put MY face on MY food. Knock-offs can copy my recipes, they can claim Chilimac as theirs, but they can never be MaryJane, I decided.
Along the way, I nearly went under several times, but I vowed I would never, ever wheedle the other farmers I bought from down in price to survive, which means I had to “market” the hell out of everything in my heart. All my passions about the present state of agriculture had to go down on paper — brochures, press releases, mail-order catalogs, any forum anywhere. (With 90 percent of all family farmers earning less than $20,000 annually, the family farm is fading. But we’re not down yet. Women are the fastest growing group of people buying small farms.) And I had to talk value until I was blue in the face. I wasn’t attempting to be a celebrity by changing the name of my farm. I was creating a home and a place like any other true-blooded farmgirl. If you’re trying to make a living as a farmer, or you’re a future farmer, or a struggling farmer, tell your story. I call it “putting a face to food.” The people we feed deserve to know who we are. More important, if eaters understand who we are, they value their food more and are around to lend a hand when we need it.
Sales of my backpacking foods are now sufficient to employ my family and friends. I employ local people and the food is packaged here at my farm. I have no desire to produce it in a factory, in a city, with little machines working the night shift. I don’t even have the desire to be rich, just in possession of the kind of wealth you feel when you’re surrounded by loving people who embrace you — a coat from the storm of life. As for my three-plus acres of organic fruits and vegetables, chickens, goats, cows and bees, it’s my dream come true, right out my front door!
I have absolute faith that farmgirls everywhere will come to the same conclusion Toni did. So, if you’re curious about the road to MaryJane, it’s looking back at you in the mirror.
A farmgirl is anyone
who sews or knits or weaves
(or wants to learn how).
A farmgirl remembers
her mother or grandmother paring apples for pie.
A farmgirl believes in the strong arms of friendship,
community and the just plain fun of being together.
A farmgirl believes in connection.
a farmgirl ...
isn’t afraid to go it alone.
A farmgirl takes joy in the quiet satisfaction
of making things with her own hands.
A farmgirl wants a world that is sane, and just,
and clean, and is willing to do her part to make it so.
You’re right Toni,
a farmgirl doesn’t have to live on a farm.
There’s a farmgirl in all of us.
Farmgirl is a condition of the heart.