[Greenstyle] Sympathetic Activism

Mary Jane Butters, owner of Mary Janes Farm Inc., recently visited Jackson to promote her line of organic bedding at Belk. Butters' company produces organic food, organic textiles, books, magazines, and American hand-crafted goods, and educates aspiring organic farmers. Still a farmgirl in her habits, Butters requested an interview at 7 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Mercifully, that's 9 a.m. in Mississippi.

Do you want to start by telling me where you were born, how you grew up, how you came to farming ...
I have a birthday here pretty quick ... I'll be 54, born in '53 in Ogden, Utah. I come to this naturally because my parents and I, we grew our own food and made our own clothes and everything. We subscribed to two publications in the family—Reader's Digest and Organic Gardening. … My parents had huge gardens with every kind of fruit tree (my father grafted fruit trees), and we always had chickens.

A lot of organic farmers coming into the business today are completely new to it. I mean some have never grown anything!
I had something here for about 12 years that was called the Pay Dirt Farm School. And it was those kinds of folks who had that glint in their eye, and they wanted to be a farmer. You start with them from scratch. It was almost hard in the beginning for me to teach because it was so natural for me to know what a weed is (laughs). But I just love cultivating these farmers and learning what it is they need. And I've really perfected that at this point having done it for so many years. … It's a huge movement amongst women. We are the fastest-growing group of people buying small farms right now, and if it continues at this rate in 10 years we would own 75 percent of the farmland in America. … It's very exciting because by our very nature we are more nurturing ... so we're not interested in what we can spray from a nozzle, or what kind of big huge farm implement we can buy. ... We're interested in feeding our friends and neighbors.

But getting back to your story ...
Well, I bought five acres at the end of a dirt road in 1986 in Northern Idaho, about 13 hours north of where I grew up. The reason I landed here is because I started working for the Forest Service when I was 18. That was my first dream: To work in the woods ... I went into the heart of the wilderness and read everything by Henry David Thoreau. But my dream was to have my own farm, so I looked for 10 years for land during that time of working for the forest service and being a carpenter. Organic farming 10 years ago was very different than it is now. There wasn't the market. The farmer's markets were very tough. … People didn't see the difference between what I was growing and what they could buy in the supermarket.

So how did you go from your five acres to the beautiful farm you have now?
I've been here 20 years ... it has taken me forever. So I bought five acres and after seven or eight years, I started dating my neighbor. His family farm surrounds mine on three sides; he and his father have about 600 acres. So we got married (but) the amount that we farm organically is still only about 50 acres. We're slowly plugging away at it. I think most of the farm we will put in natural grasslands. I like growing vegetables a whole lot. I don't want to do big monocropping of organic greens. It's too problematic.

I think that if I could have started out doing vegetables five years ago, I wouldn't have this huge, big business. The huge big business was me trying to survive in a climate before there were farmer's markets. I was trying to do something value-added. Years ago, when my kids were little ... I thought, "I'll package falafel and sell it." So one thing led to another, and I ended up with this line of organic backpacking foods, and it's doing very well. ... So it has that kind of inertia.

Part of your role as teacher is that you're using a platform that people can relate to—consumer goods—to talk about global, unfamiliar issues.
Yes. I am trying to go to a person right where they're at. When you look around, and you're an environmentalist, you're in a panic, almost. You want to point a finger, and you want to blame, and you stand on a rooftop and tell the world. And that isn't how you create change. …When I was in the non-profit world, I started an environmental organization, and I needed to tell "them" that I was right, and they were wrong. I decided to leave the non-profit world and move into the for-profit world because at every moment there is a money transaction going on in every person's day. And I wanted to be there in a loving, upbeat, positive way, over and over again, saying, "Here, try this. Let me teach you, it's not painful and you'll feel better."

How do you handle your energy needs?
We buy wind power and we pay significantly extra for it. We do biodiesel with our diesel engines. We either grow our own mustard or we buy mustard grown locally, and we press it and convert it to biofuel. And you can use anything. ... You can use canola plants. … We actually have a small co-operative for electricity and that's an option. You can pay extra, and then they can buy electricity ... I mean, the electricity that comes up your line might not be from wind power, but your money goes toward that concept, and it grows.

What's your vision for the future? How do you hope this (environmental) movement will play out?
I think it's on track. I think it's doing the very best that it can do—we're up against a lot. The concept of corporate profit and how big corporations can get is a formidable problem, and it's worldwide. And I just have to remember what the doc said, "You just have to do what you can do." ... I think doing it in the realm of what people do daily—and that is, they shop—that's where I want to do my work. … And there's something to being 54 years old. I'm at a place where I want to do it lovingly. I do not need to be right anymore, and someone else doesn't need to be wrong. I think, people who work at a nuclear reactor, I understand why they do it. These choices are difficult. Capitalism is a hard gig.

Do you think there is any role that government can play in all this?
We all wish that someone could wave a magic wand and say "electric cars tomorrow!" And we know they actually could, but they don't, and why don't they? Well it's because of that corporate thing again. We know that politicians are governed more and more by corporations. We see that with this administration certainly. It comes back to that place where people are making their daily decisions about where they are spending their money.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment